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  • Blog Posts
  • In Other Words

Book Challenge Procedures: Recipes are Intended to be Followed

by Kristin Pekoll
 | Sep 25, 2014
photo credit: Planet Takeout via photopin cc

One of the best safeguards against censorship is having a policy and procedure—a recipe—in place for almost any situation. A step-by-step guide and a list of required elements, aka ingredients, guide the process. There are a lot of players involved in any book challenge so it can be helpful for all to be working with the same instructions. Staff and administration will feel more confident if there’s a secure policy as a foundation. In a school environment, often there is more than one supervisor. It could be a department head, a principal, the school board or the superintendent. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. And sometimes they don’t always cook well together.

During Banned Books Week, the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom hears from many school librarians and teachers who are dealing with a challenge to a library material, instructional material, or reading list. Sometimes one or all of the supervisors or administrators will be supportive of the book, and a united front can be created to protect the First Amendment for the students of their community. Think raspberry soufflé.

But other times, it may be the administration denouncing the value of a resource, or possibly responding to a challenge without following procedure and overstepping the policy set in place. Think chocolate chip cookies with no sugar.

In fact, this week we received a call where the situation is just that. A superintendent recalled a book assigned to students by an English teacher. His action was based on an email from a parent and not the consequence of a board-approved policy decision. How should a teacher react in this situation?

My first step is to refer to the soon-to-be-published 2015 Intellectual Freedom Manual. There’s a sidebar in the challenges section that specifically talks about the possibility of the process being subverted or undermined.

When the Reconsideration Process Is Subverted or Undermined
If after discussing the legal and ethical reasons for following the reconsideration process, the principal or library director does not follow policy and removes the challenged resource (or one about which a concern has been raised), how far should a librarian go to defend a library resource?
      This is a personal, ethical decision, and the librarian must weigh what else can be done. If the director or principal is adamant, the librarian may be forced to evaluate the risk of retaliation from his supervisor or losing a job against the merits of continuing to oppose censorship by a supervisor. After considering the situation carefully, he may come to acknowledge that he has done all that is possible at this time, or he may decide that taking a principled stand is better for him.
      The process can also be compromised if the concerned individual or group goes around the policy structure to speak directly to a higher authority such as an alderman, school superintendent, or school board members. Although the public official or school administrator should remind the challenger that there is a review process in place, this does not always occur.

The second step is to document everything! Obtain copies of relevant policies and procedures. Make sure to keep every email and to log phone calls and verbal conversations. Write down as many details as you can remember. Take screenshots of social media. A challenger could brag that after speaking with an administrator, a specific book was removed. Documenting evidence of not following policy doesn’t mean you have to act on it, but it’s there if you need it or if a second or third offense occurs.

The third step is to seek counsel. Call the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom if you’re unsure of what direction to take. Call your teachers’ union. Call the ACLU in your state. It doesn’t hurt to ask questions.

I heard a colleague advise a teacher that sometimes a misstep of procedure by administration can be “walked back” if proof of the misstep is available. If you give your administrator a quiet moment (or day) to realize the error of his ways, he might thank you in the long run. You could pretend that it was all an innocent mistake, and pride and jobs will be saved by all. Even the best chefs overbake the cake at times.

For more information on Banned Books Week, book challenges and censorship, please visit the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Banned Books website at www.ala.org/bbooks, or www.bannedbooksweek.org.

Kristin Pekoll is the assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

 
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