Hempfield book challenge policy could mirror one used for websites

Oct. 22—The process for reevaluating challenged books and materials in Hempfield Area School District libraries could soon become more stringent after board members indicated they would like to model the policy after one used for Chromebooks.

Rather than going through a process of informal and formal challenges, board members are hoping to make the policy similar to when a student tries to access a website deemed inappropriate. Access is immediately restricted by software that filters through certain criteria and a review process follows.

The proposal would be used only for challenged resource materials.

A separate policy would be created for challenged curriculum.

Monday's discussion continued a months-long conversation that began after some parents challenged two books available to high school students.

"I believe ... that it is full blown pornography," school Director Jennifer Bretz said of one of the challenged books, "and I discussed in our policy meeting that we have our Chromebooks, and children do not have access to this through their Chromebooks.

"Why are they able to have access to this material through the library in a paper form?"

The conversation began after some parents this spring questioned "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, which chronicles Johnson's journey growing up as a queer Black boy.

Parents also questioned "The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person" by Frederick Joseph, which reflects the author's experiences with racism.

A formal complaint was filed against the books, both of which went through the review process laid out in the policy.



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That means a committee — made up of the school librarian, the library department chair, a teacher selected based on the content area of the book, a parent, a student, the complainant, the assistant superintendent and the superintendent — read the books and then met and reviewed each text using a series of questions from the policy.

It was ultimately determined the books could remain available to students.

Despite that determination, some parents continued to push for a change while suggesting those books are not appropriate for students.

Given those concerns, the board's policy committee worked for months to tweak the review process.

Proposed changes presented during this week's meeting were tabled. Those included adjusting the makeup of committees reviewing challenged materials and adding an appeals process, meaning there would be three steps in which a parent could challenge material.

Board members instead suggested using the proposed changes as a policy for challenged curriculum while directing the committee to align the process for challenged resource materials with that used for Chromebooks.

According to the Chromebook policy, the district can restrict access to internet sites deemed inappropriate if their content is determined to be defamatory; lewd, vulgar or profane; threatening; harassing or discriminatory; bullying; or terroristic.

"I can't understand why we're having a double standard here," school Director Scott Learn said. "If they can't get it on their Chromebooks ... then why are we doing this? I understand the sanctity of the library and everybody's worried about doing some kind of banning and they're worried about taking their rights away, but we need to educate students."

School Director Jeanne Smith countered, suggesting that the current system for book and material challenges is already similar to the Chromebook policy.

"We have a system in place where if someone feels a book is objectionable and should be reevaluated they can raise a red flag. And that is exactly what happens with our Chromebook. ... We have a system that if a parent or a student or a staff member objects to a book they can raise a red flag and they can start the process of asking it to be reevaluated," Smith said. "It's the same thing, it's just not done technologically."

Future conversations

In addition to looking at how materials are challenged, board members also suggested reviewing policies for the procurement of library books.

As things stand, librarians make book and material selections matching the reading interest of the community and that support curriculum topics.

Electronic books are part of the Connected Library Consortium, a statewide shared digital collection of eBooks and audio books. Each library in Hempfield has its own collection based on whether it is an elementary, middle or high school. Titles in that category are selected by a committee of school librarians, which does not include district librarians.

Board members Jerry Radebaugh and Tony Bompiani also made suggestions on how to improve parent and community input.

Radebaugh suggested creating a system that shows what students are checking out of the library while Bompiani said he would like to see a "committee of parents from both sides involved in reviewing some of the books and bring back a list of them."

Those discussions will take place during the next policy meeting. A date has not yet been set.

"I really don't know why we keep putting ourselves in this position. ... I'm not anti-book," School Director Mike Alfery said. "I understand the whole literary benefits to these things. But if your child is coming to Hempfield Area High School to learn about their sexuality, this district and the parents and the community have failed them."

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan by email at mtomasic@triblive.com or via Twitter .