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Billings librarians speak out on proposed school district changes to book collection procedure

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Billings librarians speak out on proposed school district changes to book collection procedure

May 21, 2024 | 8:01 pm ET
By Keila Szpaller
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Billings librarians speak out on proposed school district changes to book collection procedure
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Billings Public Schools librarians said this week it was ironic they were being recognized for the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award from the Montana Library Association at the same time the school board was considering undercutting their work.

Monday, librarians, parents, teachers and community members lined up to tell school board members to respect students’ rights, the First Amendment, taxpayer dollars, and the expertise of librarians and to oppose changes to a library collection procedure.

The changes — not approved this week — would have added layers of approvals to book purchases, including by the superintendent. They also would have struck out the Library Bill of Rights, including a provision that libraries should challenge censorship and support groups concerned about the free access to ideas.

The conflict pitting parents’ rights against intellectual freedom brings a debate that’s taken place across the country and at the Capitol to the largest school district in Montana.

Parents who are worried about “obscene materials” have raised concerns in Billings this year, and at the meeting Monday, they did so again and called on the school board to follow the law and protect their children.

Holding up what appeared to be a slice of chocolate cake, Sabra Stene said school libraries have plenty of books, and they won’t hurt with more culling of “poop” ingredients from more sets of eyes — “that’s diversity.”

“Keep the manure in the corral. Don’t put it in our schools,” Stene said.

But Denise Grewell, a librarian of 40 years, said a book that had nude drawings and wasn’t an art book had saved a couple of siblings. It had a tip line for children dealing with sexual predators.

Grewell said a girl called the tip line, and she and her sibling were removed from their home. The husband of their mom had been abusing them, she said, but the children were too scared to report it. She said the husband was convicted and sentenced to prison as a result.

“Librarians save lives by handing the right book at the right time to a kid in need,” Grewell said.

Backed by community members, she and other librarians argued the proposed changes would compromise children’s safety, lead to significant delays in librarians’ abilities to buy books that align with new homework assignments, and mean missing out on time-limited book deals for the district.

Opponents of the policy also said the public was given the new procedures at the last minute, on a Friday before a Monday meeting. Plus, they said, it could be a civil rights violation in denying access to students.

One of at least 35 members of the public to comment, Elizabeth Halvorson said it’s always been true that parents and guardians have the right to direct their own child’s reading, and a law the district is analyzing doesn’t affect that right.

A legal analysis reviewed House Bill 234 for the district related to obscenity. (The analysis said confusion around the law exists, but it doesn’t make it more or less possible for a district employee to be convicted of the offense of obscenity.)

But Halvorson said the matter trustees were grappling with in regards to books came from a national group, not from “a reading experience” in Billings.

“This procedure is being reviewed and revised in the context of a national group that has brought its culture wars to Billings,” Halvorson said.

In a Facebook post about the meeting, Moms for Liberty of Yellowstone County urged parents to show support for “those standing against the indoctrination of our children” and oppose “inappropriate sexual content (including rape, incest, killing teachers, violence, teaching drug use and alcoholism, etc.) in our public school libraries.”

Moms for Liberty is a conservative political organization that describes itself as “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America.” It has been at the fore of book ban fights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center considers it an extremist group.

Some parents in support of changing the way librarians add books and other materials to library collections said the school district should focus on raising low achievement scores for students rather than “gender identity,” and put procedures in place to stop pornographic and obscene materials from landing in school libraries.

Jessie Browning said taxpayers are assisting librarians in breaking the law by providing obscene material to children, and it needs to stop.

“We strongly support any efforts by the superintendent and others to change current district policy that has allowed this to continue,” Browning said.

At their regular meeting Monday, after much public comment and several failed motions, the school board opted to direct the policy review committee to draft language to update its collection policy to address a recommendation by legal counsel for the board to consider.

Legal counsel Jeff Weldon of Felt Martin said Montana code has long noted library books are selected “subject to approval of the trustees,” but Billings was out of step. He agreed that once the policy was clarified, the board could take up a revised procedure.

Trustee Teresa Larsen said some of the material she heard parents read from at an earlier meeting made her sick to her stomach, but she said small excerpts of a book may not be a fair representation.

Larsen agreed she would not choose some materials as a parent herself, but she said her responsibility as a board member is separate: “Making a decision at a board level for all parents is not something I am interested in doing.”

As it moves forward, community member Jack Hanson urged the board to retain language in the Library Bill of Rights and a Freedom to Read statement, which states reading “is essential to our democracy.” Hanson said removing them would be “frankly un-American.”

Hanson, who identified himself as a proud product of Billings Public Schools, also said if the board approves a new procedure that gives non-librarians the ability to remove material, he and others will insist on knowing exactly what they’ve removed, who authorized the removal, and the reason.

“What staff person is going to perform that work?” Hanson asked.

The procedure related to Billings library materials — where the rubber meets the road — will outline the steps for adding to the collection. Monday, the proposed revision with layers of reviews and drawn out approvals drew the bulk of the opposition from librarians.

The board did not adopt the proposed changes to procedure this week, but revisions may be an agenda item again in the future, and some members of the public urged support for them.

Rep. Lee Deming, a Laurel Republican, told the board it should stick with the revisions being proposed and stick with its guns: “I exhort you to stand your ground.”

The librarians, though, said they have the expertise to manage collections. They said they need to be nimble in responding to students — to help them compare parrot prices or address requests from multilingual students who are English language learners and speak more than 30 different languages.

“Imagine a student asking for a pencil and being told to wait two months?” said librarian Hayley Botnen.

Annie Rice, a librarian and mother, said she knows she’ll need to buy three copies of a certain book because it’s so popular it gets “trashed, and she knows a new nonfiction book about the Nazi occupation of Poland will be popular.

“Did you know middle schoolers are always asking for books about World War II?” Rice said.

She said she won’t be able to buy all of the books the students want because her budget doesn’t allow it, and she suggested the board create fewer barriers to books because students need them and librarians need to respond “in real time.”

“May I suggest you just give me more money?” Rice said.