Milford High School students not only recognized Banned Books Week, they painted a tribute in their hallway. Directly across from the school library this week is an art installation featuring 11 lockers painted to resemble the spines of 11 commonly challenged books, from “The Catcher in the Rye” to “Maus,” the graphic novel about the Holocaust.
Across the hall, an exhibit inside the library showcases a series of young adult books that have received national attention in recent years, many focused on teens struggling with race, identity and sexuality. .
“This library is celebrating Banned Books Week,” reads a sign.
But for the school district, the book challenges are also a local problem. Last school year, a parent filed a complaint about the book “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe about her journey toward identifying herself as non-binary. The whistleblower did not file a formal request to challenge the book, but amid uncertainty over what the procedures were, Superintendent Christi Michaud withdrew the book from circulation for “less than 30 days,” she said in an interview. The challenge was later dropped and the book was restored.
This school year, Milford administrators and school board members are attempting to reorganize the process for challenging books or any educational materials. Advocates say they are trying to create a clearer process while imposing stronger checks and balances against improper complaints. But some parents, aware of the challenge issued last year, are concerned that the clearer policy will simply lead to more complaints.
“A parent can now have an issue with a book or curriculum material, question it, and then that will be removed from the school for all of our students,” said Karin Cevasco, a Milford High School mother of two who also serves as the school district treasurer. “So, it’s not just a father who makes a decision for his own child, but for everyone.”
The new policy, which Milford officials say is based in part on a template from the New Hampshire School Boards Association, lays out the steps that “a parent/legal guardian who disagrees with the school on its book selection or other educational material” must take for the material to be reviewed. First, the complainant must submit a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Media and Instructional Materials” form. The principal of that school will then convene a review committee, which will have 10 days to review the material, vote and issue his decision.
If the committee decides not to remove the material, the complainant can appeal to the superintendent, the policy states. If the superintendent does not remove the material either, the complainant can make a final appeal to the school board, which would have 30 days to issue a final decision.
“We wanted to make sure that with some of the book challenges that have come up, we had policies and procedures in place that would allow us to properly address those concerns and objections,” Deputy Superintendent Christopher Motika said. “And we wanted to make sure that we did the right thing with all stakeholders by ensuring that that policy was strict and that there was a procedure in place so that we could support our teachers but also support the concerns of our public.”
Much of that process exists in current district policy, but the new proposal provides further clarification. Specifies that a complaint must be filed by a parent or legal guardian, which is not a current requirement. It also sets timelines for each step of the review process and states that any decision not to remove the disputed material must be upheld for three years until a complaint can be filed against it again. And it stipulates that the superintendent must not remove a book or piece of instructional material while it is under review, the central point of confusion behind the temporary removal of “Gender Queer.”
The proposed updates to Milford’s policy come as free speech supporters, LGBTQ+ advocates and school officials have noted moves in other states to ban certain books from school libraries and curricula. A report this week from PEN America, an organization that opposes book bans, said that 1,600 separate book titles were subject to book bans across the country last school year, with bans appearing in 32 states.
So far, the phenomenon seems relatively rare in New Hampshire. Last school year, six books were unsuccessfully challenged in the Bedford School District, according to high school media outlet, BHS unleashed. But advocates keeping an eye on the Granite State book ban attempts say they are not aware of any successful bans.
“I am cautiously optimistic that school board members and school administrators and school faculty and staff are in tune with the important representative interests of their students,” said Chris Erchull, staff attorney with GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal and advocacy organization. centered on New England. “So that’s what I’ll say about it.”
Still, Erchull said the organization is watching closely. “It’s definitely something that’s very important to us because school libraries and public libraries are really important places where young people, especially, have the opportunity to access information and ideas that they might not otherwise have to see themselves represented,” he said.
New Hampshire lawmakers have moved in recent years to pass laws creating new avenues for parents to take a stand against classroom materials. In 2017, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law require school districts to adopt a process by which a parent may object to their child receiving certain instructional materials and may receive an alternative lesson.
And in 2021, the Republican Legislature passed a “prohibited concepts” law that prohibits educators, school personnel, and state employees from advocating certain positions related to race, gender, and other protected classes. Supporters of the law say it simply prevents instruction that unfairly highlights a person’s race, gender or other part of their identity; opponents say it requires teachers and administrators to self-censor what they teach and the materials they use to teach it.
No New Hampshire law requires school districts to create policies for a formal process to challenge instructional materials and seek their removal from the entire school. But Milford administrators say members of the public can still file complaints about certain materials with the school board. They argue that adjudicating those complaints through a formal process is better than discussing them during an emotional school board hearing.
And the new “prohibited concepts,” known to many as the “divisive concepts” law, mean challenges to classroom materials could more easily arise, they say.
Michaud said the slower review-based process could encourage parents to review the materials more thoroughly and absorb all the context before filing a formal complaint.
“I think part of our concern is that people are taking excerpts out of the context of the story or the body of literature and over-emphasizing or even over-glorifying just a few short sentences instead of really talking about the context as a whole. ,” she said. “When we’ve had conversations with people, we’ve encouraged them to go back and read (the book) more fully.”
The rewritten policy remains a proposal; Members of the school’s policy committee met Thursday morning at the school to finalize a draft before the Oct. 3 school board meeting, where it will likely be put to a vote. The policy committee includes Michaud, Motika and School Board President Judi Zaino.
But Cevasco said the very existence of the policy, revised or not, remains a mistake.
“I think there will still be people who feel strongly that if a parent objects to a book or curriculum material, it should be for their child only and not imposed on the entire student body,” he said. “I hope that there will be a lot more information available and a lot more open public debate about this policy before it moves forward.”
Last year, whengenderqueer” threatened and temporarily removed, Michaud asked the angry parent to file the complaint through the same district complaint process. The complaint never came.
This year, the book earned a spot on the school’s banned books mural. A sign reads: “Gender Queer: #1 Challenged Book of 2021.”