Tips for School Leaders: When the Community Wants to Ban Books
Though it would be nice think that everyone abides by the principles of free speech and freedom of expression, school leaders do have to deal with the reality of challenges to books. These challenges can be against books that are a part of a curriculum, reading list or simply a book in the school library’s collection.
School officials, teachers or librarians may have to deal with organizations, concerned parents and even the media–entities that may misrepresent a classic book or question the school’s motives. Here are some tips to help navigate the various arguments.
Building knowledge and gaining insight
School officials should ensure that a rationale exists for the books that are held in school collections and that are read and taught in classrooms. A fundamental goal of educators is to provide students with materials that will help them build their knowledge base, gain insight, and widen their perspectives. Classic, seminal and contemporary works of literature are an integral part of that learning process. Restrictions on books can impede the learning process and hinder students’ exposure to books that may be necessary reading for those who are college-bound. If confronted verbally with challenges to books, calmly explain the role of literature in an educational setting, and emphasize that reading is always for the students’ benefit.
Know your school board
Books as seemingly harmless as James and the Giant Peach and Bridge to Terabithia have made the banned books lists in the past, so this is an issue that affects schools at all levels. If a school official is new to the area, become familiar with the district’s history concerning book challenges, if any. Principals and others, knowing how their community works, can best respond if they are prepared. In particular, officials should:
- Update the school’s book selection policy, and have it approved by the school board
- Highlight the policy’s positive role in affording access and intellectual freedom to students
- Designate the school principal as the sole person to hear complaints about book challenges
Communicate with parents
Book selection policies, reading lists and the like can be distributed to parents so that they will be aware of how and why the school chooses the books it does. Removing mystery from the process can be helpful. Let parents know how the books to be read in class will aid in their children’s education. Information can be disseminated to parents at parent-teacher conferences, Parent’s Night, or in a school newsletter. No one wants a dogmatic lecture about First Amendment freedoms, but you can say that the school has an obligation to provide students with a diverse array of educational materials. Be positive and upbeat, and stay away from any negativity.
School officials should be prepared for challenges to books, or reconsideration requests, by understanding that they may come from not just parents, but teachers, staff or school board members. Each should be treated the same as parents in terms of due process. If it does happen that a book is to be reconsidered, it should still be available during the reconsideration process. The American Library Association has a list of tips for school officials concerning book challenges and how to proceed:
- Have a solid time frame in place for how long the reconsideration process should take
- Reconsideration committees should focus on academic principles rather than interpretation of specific books or materials
- A parent can only request that their child alone be prevented from accessing the material in question
- Keep records and notify the superintendent of the challenge
- Keep faculty, staff and parents informed in the hopes of minimizing rumors
If a controversy grows
If a school official needs to deal with the media concerning book challenges, have a plan of action in place. It is best if one person is designated as the individual who will talk to the media. No others from the school should attempt to talk to or contact the media. Prepare short statements and answers to expected questions in advance. A school will always have the backing of library, literacy, and civil liberties groups, so reach out for more guidance if needed.