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Redlands Unified reviews book challenge policy amid spike in complaints

The School Board discusses ways to improve parental involvement.

Redlands Unified reviews book challenge policy at recent board meeting, taking no action on banning books. (Photo: iStock Photo by Thi Soares)

REDLANDS, Calif. – As challenges to library books spiked nationwide in 2023, the Redlands Unified Board of Education reviewed the district’s book challenge policy. School board members discussed ways to streamline the process during the March 12 meeting, taking no action to ban books.

Why it matters: Redlands Unified’s process for reviewing complaints against library books has been tested for the first time, according to school officials. The school board’s agenda item to discuss “complaint concerning instructional material” prompted a broader discussion by community members and parents about the removal of books from school libraries. 

Details: Superintendent Juan Cabral provided the board with an overview of the complaint process from the initial challenge of a book, through the multiple levels of review, up to the final decision by the district committee. Here’s what the book review process looks like: 

  • It starts with a school principal reviewing the book in question with the complainant. 
  • The principal then puts together a school site committee to review the book. The school site committee is made up of parent volunteers and at least four certified staff. The site committee will read the book and then determine whether it is age appropriate.  
  • If the complainant appeals the decision, the book goes to a district committee, which also reads and reviews the book. 
  • The decision from the district committee is final and relayed to the complainant.
  • The School Board can choose whether to review the process. 

The committee members could change depending on their availability and willingness to participate, according to Assistant Superintendent Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

"This policy hasn't really been tested before. This is the first time we've gone through this process," said Wagner.

The board broadly agreed that the process in place was working and upheld the importance of access to diverse literature. No member of the school board supported the idea of banning books. 

Board member Jim O'Neill (Area 5) and others expressed their trust in the librarians to choose appropriate books.

"I trust our staff and librarians to know what books are allowed to be in our libraries because there is a list that comes from the State Department of Education," said O'Neill. 

Board member Melissa Ayala-Quintero (Area 3), emphasized that it’s up to the parents to determine what age-appropriate library books students are allowed to read.

"We have to protect everyone's rights to ensure all students have access. Just because you believe something does not mean it's right for everyone," stated Ayala-Quintero, inciting claps and boos from the audience.

Michele Rendler, vice president of the board (Area 2), shared her beliefs about content in school libraries.

“There are books I don't believe should be in the library - the ones that are sexually explicit - that’s what I’ve been saying all along,” said Rendler noting that her opinions are personal and she is one member of a five-member board.

However, Rendler said she would like to see the process be more consistent across school sites, move quicker and have more parental involvement. 

The board also discussed the need to make it easier for parents to customize their student’s access. Any parent can limit which books their student can check out from the library. 

Cabral suggested at Tuesday meeting that concerned parents could look online for lists of commonly limited titles. 

“As an example if a parent were to print that list out, take it over to RHS and say ‘all these books on this list - I don't even know if they’re in your library - but I don’t want my child to check these out,’ that’s something that we would honor.” 

Zoom out: Challenges to library books continued to rise last year according to a report released by the American Library Association (ALA) on Thursday. The ALA found a 65% spike in challenges against book titles in 2023. Public libraries saw a 93% increase in the number of titles targeted for censorship, while school libraries saw an 11% increase. 

The study also found that nearly half of the challenged books included LGBTQ+ themes and stories and experiences of BIPOC individuals. 

The surge in book challenges is being driven by groups and activists demanding censorship of multiple titles, often dozens or hundreds at a time, according to the ALA. 

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, head of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told NPR news that the increase in challenges is coming from relatively few activists.

"We're not seeing an individual read a book and raise a concern about a book," she says. "We're seeing organized groups go to school boards, go to library boards, demanding the removal of dozens, if not hundreds, of books at a time, they are simply downloading lists from advocacy groups and demanding removal of those books."

The report did not provide information on how these book challenges have landed. However, most books that have been challenged remain on the shelves according to a 2023 study from the Education Research Institute. The study’s authors pointed out that the top 10 books that have actually been removed from the school libraries contain sexually explicit passages.

“When it comes to presenting sexual or violent material to minors, there are things that essentially everyone thinks are unacceptable, things that essentially everyone thinks are acceptable, and then room for difference of opinion in the middle,” wrote Max Eden, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Zoom into Redlands: Book challenges in the Redlands Unified appear to follow a similar trend. 

The community group known as Awaken Redlands has complained about books including "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison; "Beyond Magenta," by Susan Kuklin; "Sold," by Patricia McCormick; "Lucky," by Alice Sebold; and "Tricks," by Ellen Hopkins.

Speakers at Tuesday night's meeting were critical of the books, citing graphic depictions of violence and sexuality, LBGTQ+ themes, human trafficking, and sexual assault.

Redlands parent Candy Olson spoke about the targeted titles.

“No one wants to ban books,” Olson said. “Let’s just get that straight for the record. We don’t want to force our beliefs on others. You are all free to read pornography as much as you like, obscene content as much as you like to your children at home,” said Olson. 

Community member Dale Broome said that since Feb. 2023 he has filed nine formal complaints requesting books be removed from Redlands Unified School District Libraries.

However, most of the public comments on Tuesday night spoke against efforts to remove books from the Redlands Unified School Libraries.

Former Redlands Unified student and current parent, Samantha Trad urged the school board to maintain access to age-appropriate books. 

"They say that they aren’t here to ban books so then why are they here? Parents already have the ability to decide which books their kids read. If that process needs to be reviewed I encourage you to make that process incredibly transparent and make sure that everyone has a say on it,” said Trad. “We cannot let a small group or even a religious community dictate what books people read.” 

Others expressed concern that limiting access to books would be a violation of students' right to information and education.

Dr. Heather Griggs, a former teacher and University professor, spoke before the board saying, "Free exploration of ideas is at the core of maintaining a democratic and educated society. Through authentic inquiry, learning is solidified… that inquiry requires open access to the material."

Griggs further argued against the banning of books, stating that it would suppress the thoughts and feelings of others. "When we attempt to oppose thoughts or feelings of others we are simply indicating what we ourselves are afraid of.”