By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Laramie County school district considers offering parents four book options

 

June 8, 2023

CHEYENNE - The library book policy in Laramie County School District 1 is set to expand, but it will remain opt-out for the immediate future.

English language arts secondary curriculum coordinator Joe Evans said he hopes to present four options in the coming months to district stakeholders when it comes to their schools' media centers: open choice, parent limits choice, no access choice or identified list choice. He told trustees at their meeting Monday night the goal is to recognize every parent's right to make an informed decision for his or her child and to support active participation.

These will build upon efforts already implemented by the district, such as developing a more transparent library and media website, hiring an elementary library and media TOSA (teacher on special assignment) position, as well as including a media opt-out form in the online registration for school at the start of last year.

Evans said there are currently 41 opt-outs in place out of the district's 13,200 registered students.

Opt-out forms can be used by parents or legal guardians to request that their students not be allowed to check out books related to certain subjects, and they agree that they will "work with the school library paraprofessional/librarian/teacher to find the best way" to meet their students' needs.This is an option for any time in the school year, but Evans said there will be even more distinct opt-out choices.

Four choices

"Open choice" and "no access" were listed in his presentation and are already available to parents or guardians. Evans said selecting open choice means a student would have access to any and every book in the school library or that is provided by a teacher, and no access would cut students off from accessing any material in the media centers.

However, the other two options require the school board to create a definition of "sexually explicit."

A "parent limits choice" would align with the current general opt-out option and would be based on a librarian's curated "Clean Reads" list, excluding books that would fit into the "sexually explicit" definition and include a variety of genre, choice, taste and reading levels, depending on the student.

Collaboration with the librarian is welcomed, as well as any additional opt-outs desired by the parent or guardian.

The "identified list choice" would only opt students out of all books identified as sexually explicit per the definition and any books in the queue that are set to be reviewed.

Stakeholders were curious as to the difference between the two, and Trustee Renee Hinkle helped explain. She said the "Clean Reads" list and any additions from families would likely go beyond the books deemed "sexually explicit" under the definition and could limit books based on religious or political views.

'Sexually explicit' definition

District officials said finalizing a definition of "sexually explicit" and implementing the additional opt-out options will still take a few months, due to delays caused by staff leaving for the summer and the time required to research how other trustees are addressing book policy debates. LCSD1 attorney Amy Pauli and other staff members have already been working on this definition and presented two drafts for trustees to weigh in on at Monday night's board meeting.

Option one defined "sexually explicit" as "textual, visual or audio materials that depict or describe sexual conduct in a pervasively vulgar manner, which for purposes of textual or audio materials shall mean more than passing reference (such as the use of a sex-related expletive) or allusion to sexual conduct, but rather an extended description involving more than a word or phrase.

"Materials shall not be designated as sexually explicit based solely on the sexual orientation of characters therein. Materials that have serious artistic significance, or works of anthropological significance, or materials used in district approved curriculum shall not be designated as sexually explicit."

Pauli said this option would result in identifying more books because of the language "more than a word or phrase."

Trustees Christy Klaassen, Alicia Smith, Brooke Humphrey,Tim Bolin and Susan Edgerton said they preferred this first option. But Smith and Klaassen gave feedback about taking out the words "pervasively vulgar" and replacing the extended description with just "more than a word or phrase."

Option two was supported by Trustees Rene Hinkle and Brittany Ashby, and Hinkle said it would keep the district out of the courtroom. It defines "sexually explicit" as "textual, visual or audio materials that depict or describe sexual conduct in a pervasively vulgar manner."

It would not be based on the repetition of certain words or phrases, like in option one, but rather look at the entire book.

"Materials shall not be designated as sexually explicit based solely on the sexual orientation of characters therein. Materials that, when taken as a whole, have serious artistic or literary significance, or works of anthropological significance, or materials used in the district approved curriculum shall not be designated as sexually explicit," according to the second draft.

Finalizing this definition will likely take months, and a vote is not expected until August or September on introducing the policy change. A 45-day review period is then implemented by the district, and trustees will have the chance to set it into stone before next spring.

Review process

The way a definition of "sexually explicit" is expected to be used if approved by the board is for reviewing books and guiding the opt-out process. Stakeholders would nominate books they believe fall under the definition, and a committee of diverse backgrounds, such as educators, parents or even students, would decide whether a book qualifies.

Evans said this wouldn't result in its removal from school library shelves or being separated from students. It would just be placed on a list for the parent limits choice or identified lists choice, and was a completely separate process from challenging books to be taken out of LCSD1 libraries.

Although a definition hasn't been approved yet, Evans said parents would be able to start sending in nominations as soon as the new media center website was updated.

He also warned it may be a costly process upfront, based on a financial analysis done for challenging books this year. It requires teachers and administrators to go beyond their normal work hours, and there would be an opportunity cost for prioritizing a review committee over improving reading intervention programs, professional development or reevaluating standards.

"We had two challenges that we negotiated and fulfilled," said Evans. "And we estimated that cost in personnel to be about $10,000 per book, because this is a labor-intensive process."

Evans said the district would only have the capacity to review 10 books a year due to the $100,000 annual cost. Although he said there may be opportunities to lower this amount in the future, it would take time.

"It's a reallocation of resources, of man hours, to do that work. And that depends on the size of the book, the length of the book, has the book been checked before," LCSD1 Superintendent Margaret Crespo said. "We anticipate that eventually that will go down, but right now, with so many titles out there in our libraries that could be challenged, we want to make sure that we're being clear on what that cost can be for the foreseeable future."

Different expectations

Some trustees and stakeholders questioned the cost and said they hoped that the $10,000-per-book estimate could be brought down with the help of librarians or reevaluating the review process by using word filters.

Smith also pushed back on the options presented to the board entirely. She said when they first started talking about changes to library policy, the majority of the trustees wanted to come up with a definition for "sexually explicit" and create an opt-in procedure for parents to protect their children. She said that wasn't what they were seeing.

"I like some of the parent choices, but we're approaching this still as an opt-out procedure," she said.

Smith was met with applause from the crowd, but Crespo said she hoped that, as they move through the process, it will meet the needs of all interested parents.

Opt-in advocates

The LCSD1 board room was filled to the brim with divided residents prepared to weigh in on the issue, and attendees yelled, applauded or booed - depending on the testimony at the microphone. No one was removed from the meeting, but Board Chairman Tim Bolin continuously asked parents to stop repeating profanities and sexual acts in their comments and to act appropriately from their seats.

Bolin allowed every speaker registered to speak and on the waitlist to come forward and voice why the district should change the policy or keep the opt-out format.

Fifteen stakeholders asked the trustees to throw out the opt-out process and make it opt-in, and some expressed extreme frustration with the system.

Patricia McCoy is a mother of four children in the district, and she told the board she was "extremely upset that our children are not being protected and instead are being sexualized and indoctrinated." She said the opt-out forms weren't followed, and students had access to books that weren't appropriate for teenagers, including conversations about "eating p---."

"It's disgusting. It's disrespectful, and I hope that you are going to protect our children," she said. "I'm going to leave you with this, Matthew 18-6: 'If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.'"

Other parents in the district said LCSD1 officials were trying to scare parents into not challenging or nominating books because of the costs and that banning books was not the purpose of the opt-in policy.

"We limit R-rated speech in classrooms by students and teachers, and that's appropriate and legal and not banning or a free speech infringement. We limit R-rated movies in classrooms, and that's appropriate, not banning," said Joshua Finch. "It is not suddenly inappropriate to limit sexually explicit or obscene content to minors in our school books. It is mandated by federal law. With this, I'd like to reiterate that the discussion on this policy has nothing to do with banning, but rather protecting children by creating age-appropriate content."

Continuing opt-out

Arguments from those opposed to continuing the current opt-out policy were diverse, including not letting children be sexualized and recruited into the "queer world" and becoming "sex slaves," as well as wanting to have better transparency in all aspects of education. Their testimonies were fueled by personal experiences, many of which were related during the meeting.

However, a junior in an LCSD1 high school, who was unidentified for the record, said she had been an avid reader her entire life and had read many of the books under scrutiny. She said she was "nothing if not a better person for it."

She also cited a Supreme Court decision that said schools cannot restrict access to a book based on an individual passage.

"Censorship is not the answer," she testified. "Parents already have the power to dictate what the kids can get from their school library without taking the right to read freely from me or my family, or any other families in the district."

Six other residents pushed for the opt-out policy to remain, and some said it would be fiscally irresponsible to spend time and money on nominating "sexually explicit" books.

"When what you decide to codify becomes increasingly specific and subjective, you aren't providing meaningful oversight. Instead, you're micromanaging through policy," said Laramie County Democratic Party Chairman Jordan Evans. "This disenfranchises those you represent and undermines the work of the professionals and you fought so hard to hire and retain.

"I commend you for keeping an opt-out stance. I would urge you to keep this board in an objective position and not try to take on the burden of defining 'sexually explicit' material away from individual parents."

This story was published on June 7, 2023.

 
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