Amherst librarians: Limit book disputes to residents

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-02-2023 9:18 AM

AMHERST — Amid a nationwide surge of parent-led challenges to books in public libraries and schools, and new laws in red states led by Florida and Texas enabling efforts to remove questioned material, top librarians in the Amherst regional school system say there has never been a more critical time to promote the freedom of students to access information.

That’s why Ella Stocker, the Amherst Regional High School librarian, and Susan Wells, the Wildwood School librarian, are urging the Regional School Committee to revise a policy that sets out a process for reconsidering keeping challenged books and instructional materials in the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools.

Most significantly, new guidelines would limit challenges to students, parents and guardians, current staff members and residents of the four communities that make up the district — Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett — and prohibit outside residents from doing so.

Citing American Library Association data, Stocker noted that 223 titles were challenged around the nation in 2020. That ballooned in 2022 to challenges to 2,571 titles in public and school libraries, along with books used in curriculums, with a “dramatic surge” also occurring in Massachusetts, Stocker said. Most efforts to ban books focused on those written by members of marginalized communities and topics including on racism, social justice, and experiences by the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and and people of color) and LGBTQ communities.

“These protections ensure that our students’ intellectual freedom rights are protected,” Stocker said.

The new policy, which the Regional School Committee, along with the Amherst and Pelham school committees will consider adopting in the coming weeks, begins with a statement that “the School Committees affirm their belief that the schools should provide instructional materials that not only include multiple points of view on current and historical issues, but also ones designed to help students to achieve the instructional goals and objectives of the system and the various instructional disciplines.”

As part of the revisions, a form would be created limiting objections to local residents. Complainants would then have to elaborate on the reasons for the objection, such as concerns about the material, as well as why the resource might violate “the district mission statement, curriculum standards and selection policies.”

The form would then go to the building principal for a decision, any appeals would be made to the district curriculum director and, if a satisfactory resolution is not reached, an appeal may be made to the superintendent.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Northampton school spending advocates eye ‘mountain of cash’ in reserves; city officials warn of slippery slope
Pot company to pay $350K fine over worker’s death at Holyoke plant
Area property deed transfers, June 20
Hampshire College to cut benefits as enrollment for next school year comes in below projections
Plainfield man, 55, dies in crash
Belchertown voters resoundingly strike down override for new middle school

“The superintendent shall review the form and the material in consultation with the librarian and teacher and/or department head as well as the building principal in making their determination. In the event that a satisfactory conclusion is not reached with the superintendent, the requesting person or party or the superintendent may submit the matter to a Review Committee,” the updated policy reads.

That committee membership would include, among others, a librarian, an administrator, a school committee member and a staff representative from ALANA, or the African-American, Latino, Asian, and Native American group.

The changes would streamline a two-tiered process and policy that was adopted Aug. 9, 1988, that states “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

That policy was put in place following a controversy over the use of a MacMillan Press textbook titled “History of the American Nation” that was being used in an eighth grade American history class. That textbook was formally reconsidered in 1987, after a group of families objected to it having racial, ethnic and gender biases, contending it minimized the horrors of slavery, did not clearly depict the intents of Christopher Columbus in coming to the “New World,” and contained a favorable section on the presidency of Ronald Reagan that critics called “out-and-out propaganda.”

The book, which had been defended for offering multicultural perspectives, was retained with an understanding that it would be supplemented with other materials.

Wells said she and Stocker got help from the Massachusetts Library Association in drafting the policy. “It is a good policy, it is a good revision,” Wells said.

“This is a good way for everyone, and especially children, to see themselves in other places, and know that there are other people like them,” said Pelham representative Sarahbess Kenney, who participated in the policy revision.

Wells agreed, adding that books not only allow children to see themselves, but also to learn about others.

Committee Chairman Ben Herrington said he appreciates the draft policy sets a roadblock for outside groups that might try to compel Amherst to make changes to its curriculum, and Amherst representative Irv Rhodes said the policy recognizes that libraries bring value to the school community.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>