NH school district struggles with rules

Students at Milford High School in New Hampshire not only recognized Banned Books Week: They painted a tribute in their hallway. Directly in front of the school library this week is an art installation with 11 lockers painted to resemble the spines of 11 commonly disputed books, from “The Catcher in the Rye” to “Maus,” the Holocaust graphic novel.

Across the hall, an exhibit inside the library features a number of young adult books that have been targeted nationwide in recent years, many of which centered on teens struggling with race. , identity and sexuality.

“This library is celebrating Banned Books Week,” reads a poster.

But for the school district, reading challenges are also a local issue. Last year, a parent filed a complaint about the book “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe about their journey to identifying as non-binary. The plaintiff did not make a formal request to challenge the book, but amid uncertainty over the proceedings, Superintendent Christi Michaud withdrew the book from circulation for “less than 30 days”, she said. stated during an interview. The challenge was later abandoned and the book restored.

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This school year, Milford administrators and school board members are trying to revamp the process for challenging books — or any educational materials. Proponents say they are trying to create a clearer process while imposing stronger checks and balances against inappropriate complaints. But some parents, aware of the challenge launched last year, fear that the clearer policy will simply attract more complaints.

A display in the library at Milford High School for Banned Books Week.

“A parent can now challenge a book or educational material, challenge it, and then it will be removed from the school for all of our students,” said Karin Cevasco, a mother of two at Milford High School who also serves as the treasurer. of the school district. “So it’s not just a parent making a decision for their own child, but for everyone else.”

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The new policy, which Milford officials say is based in part on a model from the New Hampshire School Boards Association, sets out the steps that “a parent/legal guardian who disagrees with the school on its selection of books or other teaching materials” must take in order to get the materials reviewed. First, the complainant must submit a “Request for Review of Library and Instructional Materials” form. Then, the principal of that school will convene a review committee, which will have 10 days to review the material, vote, and render its decision.

If the committee decides not to remove the material, the complainant can appeal to the superintendent, the policy says. If the superintendent does not remove the material either, the complainant may appeal one last time to the school board, which will have 30 days to render a final decision.

“We wanted to make sure that some of the book challenges that came up had a policy and procedures in place that allowed us to appropriately address those concerns and objections,” said Deputy Superintendent Christopher Motika. “And we wanted to make sure that we had done well by all stakeholders in ensuring that such a policy was strict and that a procedure was in place so that we could support our teachers but also respond to the concerns of our public. .”

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Much of this process exists in the current district policy, but the new proposal provides additional clarification. It clarifies that a complaint must be filed by a parent or legal guardian, which is not a current requirement. It also sets time limits for each step of the review process and states that any decision not to remove the disputed material must be valid for three years until a complaint against it can be resubmitted. And it stipulates that the superintendent must not remove a book or piece of educational material while it is under review – the central point of confusion behind the temporary removal of “Gender Queer”.

Book bans go mainstream

Milford’s proposed policy updates come as free speech supporters, LGBTQ+ advocates and school officials have watched moves in other states to ban certain books from school libraries and programs of teaching. A report released this week by PEN America, an organization opposed to book bans, said 1,600 separate book titles were subject to book bans across the country last year, with bans appearing in 32 states. .

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So far, the phenomenon seems relatively rare in New Hampshire. Last school year, six books were challenged — unsuccessfully — in the Bedford school district, according to high school news outlet, BHS Unleashed. But advocates monitoring attempted book bans in Granite State say they are unaware of any successful bans.

“I am cautiously optimistic that school board members, school administrators, faculty and school staff are listening to the important representative interests of their students,” said Chris Erchull, staff attorney. at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal and advocacy organization. focused on New England. “So that’s what I’m going to say about it.”

Milford High School recognizes Banned Books Week with a mural and display in the library.

Still, Erchull said the organization is watching closely. “It is certainly something very important for us because school libraries and public libraries are really important places where young people in particular have the possibility of having access to information and ideas that they would not otherwise have. not otherwise to see themselves represented,” he said.

NH Republicans seek to ease book ban

New Hampshire lawmakers have moved in recent years to pass laws that create new opportunities for parents to object to school materials. In 2017, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law requiring school districts to adopt a process by which a parent can object to their child receiving certain educational materials and can receive an alternative lesson.

And in 2021, the Republican Legislature passed a “prohibited concepts” law that prohibits educators, school personnel and state employees from taking certain positions related to race, gender and other protected classes. . Proponents of the law say it simply prevents instructions that unfairly distinguish a person’s race, gender or any other part of their identity; opponents say it forces teachers and administrators to self-censor what they teach and the materials they use to teach it.

No New Hampshire law requires school districts to create policies for a formal process to challenge instructional materials and request their removal from the entire school. But Milford administrators say members of the public can complain about certain materials to the school board anyway. These complaints are better dealt with through a formal process than settling them in an emotional school board hearing, they argue.

And the new “forbidden concepts”, known to many as the law of “divisive concepts”, mean that challenges to school materials could more easily arise, they say.

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Michaud said the slower, review-based process could encourage parents to examine the documents more thoroughly and absorb the full context before filing a formal complaint.

“I think part of our concern is that people are taking snippets out of the context of the story or the body of the literature and over-emphasizing or even over-glorifying a few short sentences instead of really talking about the context as a whole. ,” she says. “When we had conversations with people, we encouraged them to go back and read (the book) more in its entirety.”

The rewritten policy is still a proposal; Members of the school’s policy committee met Thursday morning at the school to finalize a draft ahead of an Oct. 3 school board meeting, where it will likely go to a vote. The Steering Committee includes Michaud, Motika and School Board President Judi Zaino.

But Cevasco said the very existence of the policy — revised or not — is still a mistake.

“I think there will always be people who are convinced that if a parent objects to a book or educational material, it should be for their child only and not imposed on the entire student body,” said she declared. “I hope there will be a lot more information available and a much more open public debate about this policy before it goes ahead.”

Last year, when “Gender Queer” was threatened and temporarily removed, Michaud asked the irate parent to submit the complaint through this same district complaint process. The complaint never came.

This year, the book won a spot on the school’s Forbidden Books mural. A poster reads: “Gender Queer: #1 challenged book of 2021.”

This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.

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