BCSC board hears complaints, debates about library books

Photo by Jana Wiersema | The Republic The public gallery assembled at the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board meeting Monday night at the school corporation’s administrative offices.

A group protesting “inappropriate” books in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. libraries took over the public comment section of Monday night’s school board meeting, taking advantage of a new policy that allows the public to talk about any subject, whether or not it is on the agenda.

About 70 people attended Monday’s board meeting, with nearly 20 speaking during the time for public comment. Roughly half of these individuals offered their opinions on library materials, with some calling for the removal of “inappropriate” books and others pushing back against this request.

The meeting was the first since the board voted in July to implement new procedures for public comment, including an elimination of a previous rule that required all comments to be on agenda items.

Some of the individuals who were concerned about inappropriate library materials read off lists of how many times curse words are included in certain titles or read explicit passages featuring topics such as molestation, gay sex and instructions about sexual acts.

“I think that most people in this room would agree that books with pornography, graphic photos of sexual content and violence, teenage prostitution and drug use, books suggesting murdering someone, bludgeoning them to death, do not belong in the school library,” Megan Johnson said. “Yet here we are. If you are truly concerned about the mental health of our youth like you say you are, I’m urging you to create a committee to address this.”

Another individual who spoke was Eric Grow, who ran for the school board’s District 4 seat but was defeated by Dale Nowlin.

Grow has repeatedly expressed concerns about inappropriate materials in school libraries during the time for public comment at school board meetings and has been vocal about the subject on social media, creating a spreadsheet of books that he considers “problematic” and which BCSC school libraries, if any, contain copies of these titles.

“I’m a BCSC parent, I help run the ‘Grow Strong Schools’ community group and I’m here with the Bartholomew County chapter of Parents Rights in Education,” he said at Monday’s meeting. “Concerns of inappropriate content in our school libraries were brought to this body starting nearly two years ago. Parents came together and started combing catalogues. Examples were brought to these meetings, sent in emails, had in conversations, but the issue was never addressed by the board or admin(istration). We’ve since been compiling a running list of books with reviews, ratings and locations within BCSC libraries.”

Some of the books on the list are “fine,” he said, but others are “so bad it’s abusive for an institution with authority to put them in front of kids.”

He pointed to pornographic content, descriptions of sex acts, rape, violence, self-harm, suicide, “normalizing abortion,” “sensationalizing drugs” and profanity as reasons for objection.

Grow’s booklist spreadsheet also features categories such as activism, “controversial cultural, political, social, historical or racial commentary,” “controversial/inflammatory religious commentary,” “alternate gender, sexual ideologies, dysmorphic,” social-emotional learning, critical race theory, diversity, equity and inclusion, and racism.

He added that the group has noticed that inappropriate books have been “disappearing from school catalogs.”

“While we are happy to see some of them go, this raises more foundational concerns,” Grow said. “Concerns of transparency and candor. Many questions immediately pop up that our community should know. What books were in our libraries, and why were they taken out? What criteria is being used to make the decision? Why is this being done quietly without addressing the issue?”

He asked for the matter to be addressed through community discussions with the board, with all sides being heard.

However, other speakers argued that content that is viewed as objectionable by some should still be available to students, as it may be beneficial for those who feel alone or have been through difficult experiences that they need help navigating.

“Parents will sometimes disagree on what’s appropriate and what’s not, so the books that are there matter less than how the people, how the children in the school feel, how welcomed they feel, how seen they are,” said Jason Tracy. “One of the hard things that I’m sure every parent has gone through is the realization that you can’t protect your children from the things in the world that you see as awful. And for some parents, those are words, and sometimes it’s hate and it’s disdain for who someone really is.”

He added, “I am thankful that my daughters went to BCSC. I am thankful that one of my daughters, who is gay, survived. And I am thankful for the people I see here that are going to make sure that the kids that are there now also survive.”

Another individual spoke from the direct perspective of a gay, genderqueer person.

“I didn’t choose this for myself,” said Payton Emberton. “I didn’t want this for myself for a long time. I grew up in a strict, evangelical environment, and I hated myself for so long. And it wasn’t until I got exposure to media talking about queer issues that I finally began the process of accepting myself for who I am. Media talking about queer issues and the issues of our people is healing. We deserve to know our history and what our ancestors went through to get us to this point, the courage they had.”

Other speakers said that books provide a way for students to learn about difficult subjects without experiencing them firsthand, and parents who are concerned can take steps to monitor what their kids read.

Library materials have been a hot button topic over the past couple years, with the Indiana General Assembly passing a law in the spring that requires public and charter school libraries to publicly post a list of books in their catalogs and establish a formal complaint process for parents, guardians and community members who object to materials in these libraries. BCSC already had a complaint process in place prior the law being passed.

Additionally, under the new legislation, schools and librarians are no longer able to argue as a legal defense against criminal prosecution that materials deemed to be “obscene” or “harmful to minors” in their libraries have “educational” value. The proposal, however, still allows them to argue that the materials have literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

During the time for board input and review at the meeting’s end, Nowlin said he would like to hear from individuals who’ve attempted to use BCSC’s official process for “getting inappropriate materials out of school libraries.”

“Let us know if that policy works,” he said.

Board member Logan Schulz said that he believes a different forum for public input would help address individuals’ concerns and added that he would like to form a committee on library materials to “establish a line.”

“I would encourage this board to form either the board itself, or a committee therein, to establish a public subcommittee that would allow for the book topic to be brought and any other legislation-induced topics that will come effective Jan. 1 so that that could be the outlet and means in which the public gets its feedback in and feels like it’s heard, has that conversation,” he said. “We can decide, what is appropriate? I have four children in elementary school; I would be very concerned if they heard some of the words that were here today.”

Schulz added that some books might be harmless for some students but harmful to others who already bear trauma.

Board member Jason Major also spoke of a desire for more means of engagement with the public on this topic.

The issue of inappropriate materials versus concerns about censorship was one of the topics debated during BCSC’s 2022 school board elections. At one candidate forum in October, Major responded to a question about censorship by reading an explicit passage from a book that he said was included in Columbus East High School’s library.

“Is this acceptable in our schools?” he asked afterward.

During election season, Major, Grow, Schulz and Roy West called themselves “Dads 4 Change” and banded together based on similar views, but only Major and Schulz were elected to the board.

“Dale, I’ll give you this: As far as policy goes for books, I can tell you that I am one of those pesky book banners,” Major said at Monday’s board meeting. “I did take the book that I read at the forum that I felt that was very inappropriate … and I put that through the test. So at the beginning of the summer, it had stopped with (Superintendent) Dr. (Jim) Roberts. We knew that there’s laws that were coming out that were being updated.”

He added that he supports the idea of forming a committee and finding points on which both sides can agree. His other ideas included using “book ratings,” having special sections of the library that are restricted to older students and using technology to notify parents about what books their kids check out.

BCSC isn’t the only local entity to see these kind of debates.

Starting in spring of 2022, there were a number of meetings of the Bartholomew County Public Library board where some individuals advocated certain teen section books be moved to another area of the library or be banned from the facility, while others decried those sentiments as censorship. Many of the books in question dealt with LGBTQ issues.

After months of work by library staff to examine the teen department — including a study of other libraries’ teen collections, a public survey on the local teen department and a title-by-title diversity audit of the library’s teen fiction materials — the library board voted in July to adopt a final report on the study’s findings, which included three main recommendations:

  • Make a concentrated effort to seek out diverse materials for the section
  • Adopt a policy for book displays
  • Relocate and reorganize the teen section