Superintendent casts deciding vote in removing 2 books from Washington County schools

The Washington County School District Office at 121 W. Tabernacle St., St. George, Utah, March 29, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

ST. GEORGE —A parental complaint has led to two books being pulled from the shelves of libraries in the Washington County School District.

Two books have been banned at Washington County School District libraries after a parent filed official challenges to the books. “The Hate U Give” and “Out of Darkness” were reviewed by library committees and deemed age-level inappropriate,
Stock image | Photo by Unsplash, St. George News

The recommendation to ban the first book, “The Hate U Give,” at local elementary and intermediate schools was made by a committee put together for the purpose of vetting books for students in grades K-5. The review panel included two parents, two principals and two school media specialists, i.e. librarians who are required by the district to hold a teaching credential.

The committee determined the book is inappropriate for children who are not yet in eighth grade, with the liberal use of profanities cited among other concerns. “The Hate U Give” has won numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award and the Coretta Scott King Award for best children’s novel penned by an African American author.

The second book to be banned is “Out of Darkness,” a novel that was carried by district middle and high schools. The committee formed to scrutinize books at the secondary schools was split on the decision, with four members supporting its removal and four voting to leave the book on the shelves.

Per policy, it fell to Superintendent Larry Bergeson to cast the deciding vote. He did so during an afternoon work meeting held Dec. 14 in advance of the regular school board gathering, which was dominated by the schools’ book-vetting processes. Bergeson started the discussion by acknowledging that the potential banning of reading material is a touchy topic.

“There’s two overlying issues: the concern of parents, or anyone for that matter, that might have more conservative views about what the contents of books are, and the liberal side – freedom of speech, don’t censor or do any of those things,” Bergeson said. “And so those, like everything today, are diametrically opposed. We just have a battle along those lines. Trying to make both sides happy is not easy to do.”

Bergeson voted in favor of removing “Out of Darkness” from Washington County School District libraries.

“As I read through all of it … I was depressed. It affected me, big-time,” he said. “I don’t suppose that my whole values barometer is much different from a lot of people in the room. When something’s criminal, when something goes over things like incest and rape of family members viewed and spoken about and forced to be viewed by siblings, among other things, that’s wrong. I can’t go there. My decision is, it’s out.”

District policy states that only a student, parents who have children at the school in question or an administrator can challenge the presence of a book on a Washington County campus.

The recent review began with a parent emailing the superintendent and school board with concerns about four books in district libraries. The complaint, which was also posted on Facebook, also included the books “George,” a novel about a transgender fourth-grader, and “Suddenly One Summer,” a coming-of-age tale told in graphic novel form.

The parent, however, only filed official challenges regarding “The Hate U Give” and “Out of Darkness,” said Steven Dunham, communications director for the district.

Washington County schools are not the first to have mulled over whether “The Hate U Give,” an award-winning young adult novel by Angie Thomas, should be available to younger viewers. It landed at number 30 in the American Library Association’s list of the most banned and challenged books from 2010-2019.

The story follows protagonist Starr, a 16-year-old African American girl who navigates a double life. She lives in a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood but attends a prep school populated by mostly rich, white students. Starr’s life is further complicated when she becomes the sole witness to the police shooting of her best friend Khalil, an unarmed black teen.

Those who advocate censoring the book typically cite an abundance of profanity among their objections.

“Out of Darkness” has been banned or challenged in three Texas school districts this school year after an outraged parent – in a clip that has since gone viral – complained about the book’s referencing anal sex.

The young adult novel by Ashley Hope Pérez uses a real tragedy- a 1937 explosion at the New London School in Texas that left nearly 300 dead – as the backdrop for a story touching on romance and racism. The protagonist, Naomi Vargas, is a Mexican American girl who attends the local all-white high school.

She faces racism at every turn and abuse at home, finding brief respite when she falls in love with a Black teen named Wash Fuller. The Romeo and Juliet-flavored story was named a Michael L. Printz award honor book.

Challenging reading

Controversy in Washington County began near the end of October when a parent emailed a letter to the district, which she also published on Facebook. She complained that four books in the district libraries contained “appalling/explicit” information.

“Please do not delay in removing these books from all WCSD schools,” she wrote. “We cannot take lightly the impact we have on students and our responsibility to call out the greatness in them. I am a firm believer that this is done by providing children with good literature, filled with inspiring, morally strong themes and characters. As you know, what we feed our minds influences our behavior.”

Dunham said that in addressing the parent’s concerns, the district “followed policy to the letter” and would continue to do so on a case-by-case basis if any other books are challenged in the future. He noted that the official book review process will be undertaken on a case-by-case basis. That being said, Dunham has his own opinions on the matter.

“I think, in general, book censorship is bad, and it’s a dangerous path to go down,” he said. “I also think that parents should consider that children aren’t seeking out library books for the bad in them. These kids can google anything on their cell phones in the palm of their hands. … I would hope that parents are as attentive and alert and concerned about the cellular devices their children have as they are about the school library.”

Superintendent Larry Bergeson, seen next to council member David Stirland, cast the tie-breaking vote that resulted in the ban of “Out of Darkness,” St. George, Utah, Dec. 14, 2021 | Photo by Sarah Torribio, St. George News

At the work meeting, the superintendent and board members also discussed ways books can be vetted more carefully, how sensitive reading material might be curated as well as how to keep parents informed as to what their kids are reading.

Ideas included keeping certain books deemed controversial off the regular shelves and only made available to students with express parental permission. Bergeson also talked about a library software program already in use at some district schools that emails parents with the names of the books their child has just checked out. The program is free but requires significant hours of work to get up and running, because each book must be scanned and entered into the new system.

Books in the district may well face further scrutiny in the future, in part because of the efforts of an organization called Utah Parents United. The group, which can loosely be characterized as conservative, has hundreds of numbers in its Southern Utah chapter alone. Members are looking to impact schools on a number of fronts, including fighting against vaccine and mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory, which, broadly speaking, is an academic movement that seeks to link racism, race and power

The Utah Parents United website also gives direction to parents hoping to ensure their children’s school libraries are free of books that espouse critical race theory, highlight LGBT issues or are sexually explicit.

Dunham said that forbidding books isn’t the only way parents can instill values in their children. Instead, he said, they can use books as a starting point to have a frank talk with kids “that can lead to a positive, fruitful discussion about topics they’re going to face as they become adults.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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