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school board spends much of 2005 debating books

posted on sunday, january 1, 2006

url: http://www.nwanews.com/nwat/news/35974/

the fayetteville school board knew there would be issues to deal with in 2005.  the ongoing construction of the new k-7 school on rupple road and redrawing attendance zones over the summer were a couple it anticipated.

then, at the february meeting, resident laurie taylor showed up to complain about school library books she considered sexually explicit, and it started an intense, drawn-out community debate that lasted until september.  "that one kind of snuck up on us," board president steve percival said.

the library book issue prompted more letters to the editor at the northwest arkansas times than any other local issue in recent history.  it became statewide news and received some national coverage, mostly on the internet.

as the debate wore on, it featured twists and turns, reversals of prior decisions, polarizing arguments by people for and against taylor and a summer of inaction by the school board, which only prolonged the issue.  this helped make it the northwest arkansas times' choice for the top story of the year.

the debate touched on issues such as how libraries are structured, censorship and the roles of school librarians.  some residents who disagreed with taylor made "we support our librarians" one of their battle cries.  taylor said many of those issues were irrelevant to her argument that parents have a right to know what their children read.  in september, the board decided it could not restrict access to library books by requiring parental consent to check out certain materials.

the beginning after finding out some fayetteville school libraries had copies of the sex education book "it's perfectly normal," taylor decided to file a formal complaint on the book under the school's policy on "request for reconsideration" of library materials.

she also decided to take her case to the school board.  she expected the board to be shocked at this book and demand its removal.

instead, board president steve percival asked her to wait until a review committee could finish evaluating the book.

an appointed review committee did not recommend withdrawing "it's perfectly normal" from the library system.  however, the committee suggested it be placed in the "parent library" section within middle school and elementary school libraries.

parent libraries were designed to provide parents additional book access.  they vary from school to school and usually feature books on subjects that would be of more interest to parents than children.

after taylor's appearance in february, a group of residents who supported the retention of the book in school libraries spoke at the april meeting.

taylor also filed complaints against two other books during the spring semester, but the committee also rejected withdrawing those.

percival allowed her to appeal the committees' decisions to the school board, which occurred at the may meeting.

after more than two hours of debate, the board voted 4-3 on a compromise decision that the books would be placed in the parent libraries.

this would become a key decision later when the board determined parent libraries were not intended to be off-limits to students.

the summer about four weeks after the may decision, taylor dropped a new bombshell.  she announced by e-mail that she had found 70 books in the library that she wanted reviewed on the grounds they were inappropriate for students.

she said that instead of banning the books, they should be placed on a restricted shelf where children couldn't check them out without parental permission.  taylor suggested the board appoint a parentled committee to review the libraries' inventory of books.

initially, taylor announced 10 of the 70 titles, saying she and her supporters wanted to further review the books to ensure they deserved such a label.  eventually, she released 54 titles.

taylor saw the issue as very cut and dry.  the books had some sexually explicit pages, and children shouldn't be reading them without their parental consent.  this should even apply to high school students who aren't 18, she suggested.

residents who disagreed with her noted most of the books were in the high school.  some were considered prestigious books of modern literature.  one book, "100 years of solitude," was a nobel prize winner.

they also argued it was much harder for an elementary age student to request such a book through interlibrary loan than taylor suggested it was.

some books featured homosexual themes, and taylor received some criticism for targeting such materials.  one of the first books identified was titled "the homo handbook."

the school board did not officially address the matter at its june and july meetings.  percival suggested to taylor in july that she should file complaints against individual books.

at the july meeting, a group of supporters and dissenters again spoke their views on the issue during citizen participation time.

in august, taylor filed a new formal complaint against the book "push," but she soon complained superintendent bobby new wouldn't process it in a timely manner.

new contended he would address the complaint after the school year started.  he then wrote taylor in mid-august that he would no longer respond to e-mails and would communicate only by letter.

he said he wanted to make the communication more formal and official.

on aug. 18, taylor announced she was forming an organization to address the library issue.  she called it parents protecting the minds of children.

the plan as the august meeting started, it looked like citizen participation time might be another mixture of pleas and arguments for and against placing restrictions on book access.  after the meeting started, percival stated he had a plan to hopefully settle the matter.  he proposed holding a special town hall meeting to discuss the matter, followed by another meeting to hear specifically from librarians and the school attorney.  percival said he thought he had to take action to resolve the issue because the issue had grown too contentious in the community.  people on both sides of the issue were making and being subjected to "personal attacks."

taylor claimed, for example, that she had been called a nazi.

the other board members agreed to the plan, and the town hall meeting was scheduled for sept. 13 in the high school auditorium.  the follow-up meeting was scheduled for two days later.

taylor and most of the others who had planned to speak at the august meeting left after the town hall forum was agreed upon.

resolution seating at the sept. 13 town hall meeting was limited to 300 and it featured a full house.  the board gave equal opportunities for arguments on both sides of the issue, but clearly, most of the crowd favored unrestricted student access to books.  taylor and her supporters were allowed the opportunity to have a student and school staff member speak in their favor, but they did not find either a teacher or student to speak on their behalf.

in fact, taylor scoffed at the idea of student participation prior to the meeting on the grounds students are minors.

fhs art teacher john remmers represented staff members in favor of unrestricted access to books.  he gave a speech about the trials of gay students, saying they need to be able to check out books on gay issues without fear of their parents finding out about it.

the event also showcased the influence the university of arkansas can have on the community.  some who spoke in favor of unrestricted access to books were ua employees, but they all pointed out they weren't speaking on behalf of the university.

these included university provost bob smith, who declared there was no evidence of students becoming "reprobates" based on what they read.

at the follow-up meeting two days later, the board heard a detailed report from librarians on library procedures.  school attorney rudy moore jr. told the board the standard for removing a book once it is in the library is very high and he did not believe the school could require parental permission to check out certain books.

moore cited a case where the cedarville school district required permission for students to check out harry potter books.  a judge ruled against that district on the grounds that requiring parental consent creates a "stigmatizing" effect on students.

the board voted 4-3 to reverse its may decision on the three books taylor filed complaints against in the spring semester.  the review committees' original decisions were adopted, with the understanding that there were no restrictions on student access to the parent library.

board member susan heil was the "swing" vote, having approved the restrictions earlier.  the board members who voted against the reversal said they mainly wanted more time to review the committees' findings.

aftermath a review committee did process the complaint against "push" as new said it would.  in october, the committee ruled the book could stay in the high school library.  taylor also filed a complaint against the book "deal with it!" in december, the committee ruled that book could stay in the library.  the american family association has said it will sue over the library book issue, but a lawsuit hasn't been filed yet.  taylor said she doesn't know if she will participate in a lawsuit.

the board did order new to form a committee to conduct a comprehensive review of library procedures and policies.  that report is expected sometime in the spring 2006.


related stories

fayetteville school library book debate

fayetteville resident laurie taylor has made a proposal to place certain fayetteville public school library books she considers to be inappropriate for students on a restricted access shelf.  fayetteville school district patrons received a chance to voice their opinions on whether to restrict student access to certain school library books at a special town hall meeting.  the fayetteville school board eventually decided by a narrow margin not to restrict access to certain books.  the stories below cover the issue from its beginings [sic] through the decision by the school board and the aftermath.

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