Elmbrook Schools to review policy on censored books

The same list shared in northern Wisconsin was used to purge books in Waukesha County school district

By: - October 12, 2022 6:45 am
Girl (6-8) looking at book in library, silhouette

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On Wednesday, Oct. 12, an Elmbrook School Board committee is set to review a policy scrutinizing students’ access to certain books. The policy — Practice Statement 6163.1 regarding Instructional Resources for Students Libraries — is part of an effort that has spread to school districts across Wisconsin. That effort is guided by a list of “inappropriate” books, seven of which have already been purged from Elmbrook’s library collections. While books have been removed or relocated, students are also under increased scrutiny, with records of library check outs now being sent to parents on a weekly basis.

Practice Statement 6163.1 outlines the procedure for selecting books for the library’s collection, as well as how books can be challenged or removed. A list of 11 sources to help staff review books is provided, including Booklist, Common Sense Media and Kirkus Reviews. Just one book review source, Publishers Weekly, was removed when the school board committee approved the revised policy on Jan. 5, 2022, after previous changes were made in November 2021.

The revised policy also changed the section covering “challenged materials.” For instance, rather than requesting that a child not access a specific title, parents can now request that a student “has no access to the specific resource, limited access to the print collection, and/or no access to the digital collection.”

 

Policy with edits 2

The Practice Statement 6163.1 with the edits that were made to the policy.

 

Under the policy, library materials may be removed if they contain outdated or inaccurate information, “are no longer considered useful for curricular support or reading enrichment,” if they haven’t been checked out in a long time, are in poor physical condition, or “are designated for removal following the Request for Reconsideration, Controversial Issues process.” The policy also requires weekly summaries of check-outs made by all students under age 18 to be sent to parents. Parents may opt out if they choose.

School district emails, obtained by Wisconsin Examiner through an open records request, shed light on the pressure to remove books placed on Elmbrook’s libraries and classrooms by an organized group of parents. Books the parents feel are inappropriate because they cover sexuality and other controversial topics including race are the main lightening rods for that activity. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) has assisted parents who object to certain books.

In July 2021, WILL issued a letter to the Elmbrook School District on behalf of a group of parents angered that three books discussed online dating and sexual activity and contained illustrations of nude bodies. The parents were outraged that the titles were available to Elmbrook students as young as third grade. WILL demanded that the books be removed, that the district “investigate and publicly identify all sexually explicit materials currently available to students,” provide new training for Elmbrook staff, ensure that parents can remotely monitor what materials students are downloading or viewing from Elmbrook sites, and issue an apology from Superintendent Mark Hansen.

Girl reading or studying with a book at the library, Getty photo by FangXiaNuo
Girl reading at the library. (FangXiaNuo | Getty photo)

In December, local parents continued pressing the district even after the three books that sparked the WILL letter were removed. Around that time, Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), who represents a district more than three hours away from Elmbrook’s schools, received emails from parents in his district concerned about some of the same books. The parents also provided James with a list of dozens of books, which he used to approach schools and ask if they were provided to students. A very similar list has also appeared in the Waukesha School District. The Elmbrook School District is also located in Waukesha County.

The vast majority of the books featured on the list involved LGBTQ topics, discussed gender identity, or featured LGBTQ characters. Some dealt more with navigating life as a young LGBTQ person, while others had more general sexual education angles. Several of the books, however, dealt with issues of ethnic identity, racism, discrimination and anti-racist activism.

Parents in both the Elmbrook school district and in Altoona, in James’ district, pushed  to remove specific books from the classroom.

They also pitched changing state statute 948.1, which prohibits providing “harmful material” to a minor, and classifies the act as a Class E felony. Libraries and educational institutions are currently exempt under the law since they “carry out the essential purpose” of providing all manner of books, recordings and reference materials to the public. The parents demanded removing the exemption — opening  the door for librarians and other school staff to be prosecuted.

Several emails obtained by Wisconsin Examiner state that the book list was originally shared with the Elmbrook school board by a parent. Wisconsin Examiner reached out this week to that parent, who is mentioned several times throughout the 142 pages of emails. In multiple emails, including a March 15 email sent by Hansen, the parent is mentioned as having shared the book list with the district.

The parent declined a request for comment in an emailed response. The parent also claimed that the email address — which appeared in open records requests —“has been improperly used and shared by the Elmbrook School District and you are advised that making any assumptions based on its inclusion in any public records from them should not be assumed as being accurate.”

Book covers
Covers of some of the books that have been removed from the Elmbrook School District library under a district policy that allows the removal of “inappropriate” books. (Wisconsin Examiner photo illustration)

A nearly identical copy of the list that the Altoona parents provided to James also found its way to Elmbrook in December. Just before the New Year on Dec. 31, 2021, Glen Allgaier, an Elmbrook School Board member at the time, mentioned the list in an email discussing changes to the library policy. Besides a “recommended reading list from FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism),” Allgaier attached “a list of ‘questionable books’ that was handed out at the last Board meeting.” He added:  “I don’t know if the latter has any relevancy but it would be of interest to know which, if any of these books are currently in our libraries.”

Allgaier retired from the board in April 2022.

Another board member raised questions about how the library policy was being crafted and about the use of book lists. In a Jan. 4 email, the member, Jennifer Roskopf, mused about what would be the “process to audit our collection to ensure it meets this revised policy” and how many books might actually be affected.

In her email to Elmbrook Schools Chief Strategy Officer Chris Thompson and Superintendent Mark Hansen, Roskopf wrote: “Mark had shared a document looking at using lists provided by parents of books to assess using an administrator/staff group — is this where we start? How do we ensure that the policy changes are reflected in our collection.  It would be helpful to understand the process and the output to see how the policy impacted our collections.”

Purging books across Elmbrook

The district did indeed keep track of what happened to the books that appeared on the list. At least one resident asked the district what happened to the books. Thompson emailed back the list, as well as a version dated Jan 10, 2022, that showed what actions, if any, individual books were subjected to. Thompson replied to the resident in a March email that “we do not have any records that describe the rationale for any books that were removed.” He also offered to meet the resident along with other staff  “to discuss any questions you may have about the list or the process to remove a few of the books from our collection.”

According to the Book List Review Summary Report obtained by Wisconsin Examiner, just 28 of the 45 books on the list were in Elmbrook’s collections. Seven of the 28 were removed from the district, including at the high school level. Nine others were moved to higher grade levels. The seven removed books included “Embrace,” by Jessica Shivington; “Perfect,” by Ellen Hopkins; and “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide,” by Kathy Belge and Marke Biesche. There were also two books by Lauren Myracle, “The Infinite Moment of Us” and “TTYL”; “Traffick: The Sequel To Tricks,” by Ellen Hopkins; and “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson.

 

Book List Elmbrook

The list of books as it appeared in open records requests made to Elmbrook School District.

 

In one of the emails obtained by Wisconsin Examiner through open records requests, Thompson stated that there were no records explaining the rationales for removing the books. Nevertheless, he also told Wisconsin Examiner on Oct. 7 that the revised policy was followed. “The books were removed based on the selection and withdrawal guidelines in Practice Statement 6163.1,” Thompson said in the email statement. He added that “no other books have been removed and no book is currently being considered for review using the Request for Reconsideration process.”

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Concerns about the shifts within the library, however, apparently did not stop at the removal of those seven books. In early February Elmbrook Library Media Specialist Melissa Matz received an email asking what books had been removed. “I have no idea how you’d get your hands on that list,” Matz said in her reply email to the  individual, which Wisconsin Examiner obtained through its open records request. “I do know that I’ve received some books from the middle school library that can no longer reside there. There is one book that has been removed from this library and the reconsideration policy wasn’t followed.”

Matz also noted that “the entire professional collection has been removed from this library. That’s over 100 titles. The books all have to do with teaching. They can be checked out by anyone but usually they are only of interest to faculty and staff.”

Surveillance of student check outs

In a Feb. 8 notice to district students, Matz also described the policy revisions.  “The Elmbrook School Board changed student privacy rights,” Matz wrote, adding that “your library borrowing records are no longer private and will be emailed to your parent or guardian on a weekly basis.”

The notice went onto explain that, “The public library maintains privacy of library records. If you are 16 years of age or older only a court order compels the library to release your borrowing records. If you are 15 years of age or younger your parent must request your borrowing records in writing.”

Once the privacy policy changed, parents and residents began expressing concerns to the district that this amounted to a form of surveillance on students — especially problematic for LGBTQ students, since the book list focused so heavily on LGBTQ topics, or for students involved in youth activism. Thompson told Wisconsin Examiner that students age 18 or older are not subject to that part of the policy. For the past several years, he noted, “parents have access to their child’s internet search history” through a parent portal that is part of the school’s internet filtering software:  “All school districts are required to have a filtering product in place to receive federal E-Rate dollars.”

 

Book list with action

A modified version of the list of books, showing what happened to each book on the list whether relocated, or removed entirely.

 

Thompson told Wisconsin Examiner that the district’s policy “declares a student’s check out history as part of a pupil record, which parents have access to by state statute.”

But removing  books and monitoring what students check out in Elmbrook is raising concerns among civil liberties and LGBTQ advocates.

“It’s pretty clear, based on the books being removed, that the school district is attempting to suppress books that contain LGBTQ identities and themes,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin said in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “But school boards cannot remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas in those books.”

Citing Wisconsin state law, the statement adds that “school districts have a duty under Wisconsin law to ‘provide adequate instructional materials, texts, and library services which reflect the cultural diversity and pluralistic nature of American society,’” and charges that “systematically removing or restricting access to books that speak to LGBTQ+ identity and experience obviously does not comply with this requirement.”

The organization’s statement also emphasized the free speech rights of students: “Students have First Amendment rights in their public school libraries, and the Supreme Court has ruled that access to various ideas and perspectives ‘prepares students for active and effective participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society in which they will soon be adult members.”

Older kids in school classroom from the back of the room
Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

Katie Obbink, the librarian at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, criticized the practice of sending student check out lists to parents every week. “As a librarian for a collection of books that focuses on telling the stories of the LGBTQ+ community, patron privacy is one of my core concerns,” Obbink said in a statement to the Wisconsin Examiner.  “Especially for minors, who face serious repercussions if a parent objects to the subject of a book their child is reading. Learning about identity and community is critical for LGBTQ+ youth, and as the librarian for a community center that supports this community, I have the freedom to set policies of strict privacy for all of my library patrons.”

School districts are subject to other forces, she acknowledged.

“It is unfortunate that advocacy groups have chosen to add the school libraries to their list of places to promote their opinions for what’s best ‘for the children,’” said Obbink. “According to the American Library Association, ‘in a library, user privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.’”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.

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