School library concerns growing in Oklahoma
February 23, 2022
Growing awareness of school-library content—including graphic depictions of rape and incest, along with behavior that would get students expelled in most districts—has prompted parental concern and associated legislative responses this year.
Parents and health experts warn the materials in some school libraries could even retraumatize children who have experienced abuse.
“We aren’t for banning books at all,” said Janelle Shellem, an Edmond parent who worked as a teacher for 10 years. “But what we are for is transparency. We do feel like many of these books are not appropriate for the age in which they have been chosen. More than anything, they’re addressing issues that we believe are up to the parents to expose their children to, not the school. We feel as if the school is taking some of our rights away, some of our privileges as a parent, to be able to have these conversations with our kids.”
While books marketed to school-age children have long dealt with serious issues, in recent years many have become increasingly graphic.
For example, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, includes a rape scene witnessed by the narrator. At a party, a boy and girl slip into a room with the couple described as “very drunk.” The boy proceeds to pull his pants down and then “pushed the girl’s head down.”
“She was still crying,” the narrator states. “Finally, she stopped crying because he put his penis in her mouth, and I don’t think you can cry in that position. I had to stop watching at that point because I started to feel sick, but it kept going on, and they kept doing other things, and she kept saying, ‘no.’”
For youth who have experienced sexual abuse, reading such passages may cause far more harm than healing, experts warn.
State Rep. Randy Randleman, R-Eufaula, is a licensed psychologist who has worked in 155 school districts and 135 Head Start centers across Oklahoma. He said the material contained in some books relating to rape or incest could retraumatize children.
“It can definitely bring up further issues and cause more problems,” Randleman said. “Because the kids don’t know how to handle that emotionally.”
For a child victim of sexual abuse, reading a story that graphically describes a similar event can make their own real-world experience “a lot more severe,” Randleman said.
“What happens is they don’t know how to handle those emotions, so what they do is they come out as disruptive behaviors and lashing out,” Randleman said. “And sometimes a kid can’t even tell you what it’s about.”
Shellem said some books assigned at Edmond schools include depictions of male-on-male rape involving youth as young as 13. Depictions of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child sex trafficking, and more are included in books made available to students or placed on reading lists.
“When we met with the district to talk about these books, one of the points of praising these books was that kids don’t feel alone—the kids who have experienced these things don’t feel alone,” Shellem said. “However, it can also bring up a lot of trauma and a lot of anxiety and things that I just don’t think feel like teachers are really prepared (to address). They’re not prepared to handle these things in the classroom. That’s not their role. And that’s not what we, as parents, expect from them.”
Officials worry other school-library books, perhaps inadvertently, send a message to students that acts of abuse are normal.
The book Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, has gained attention for a passage where a character reveals that in fourth grade, at a youth-group meeting, “out in the bushes behind the parsonage, I touched Doug Goble’s d—k, and he touched mine. In fact, there were even some mouths involved.”“Queer theory argues that inclusion is not enough … Instead, heteronormative institutions need to be questioned, challenged, and disrupted.” —Adam Crawley and Jennifer Pulliam
While some may dismiss that description of oral sex as a tale of young boys exploring their sexuality, officials note such incidents at a young age are actually a sign at least one of the children involved has been abused and likely raped.
When such incidents are treated in an offhand fashion, it sends the wrong message to children, critics say.
“It’s normalizing all of this trauma and making the kids feel like, ‘Well, if that happens it’s not a big deal. I wouldn’t need to tell anybody. I wouldn’t need to make a big thing of it. I wouldn’t need to think that there’s anything wrong with this,’” Shellem said. “And that’s what we’re teaching our kids when they’re too young to fully understand emotionally, mentally, spiritually.”
Even as concerns are being raised about the content of some books, other books that long received strong public approval have been quietly yanked from reading lists.
Edmond parents learned To Kill a Mockingbird was no longer on reading lists in the district. Shellem said parents were told the book had been removed because it included the racial slur now commonly referred to as the “n-word.” It was only after parents pointed out that three other books on district reading lists included that same racial epithet that To Kill a Mockingbird was again added as an option.
Other books now marketed to school-age students involve increasingly extreme scenarios.
Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender, is among the books available at Edmond North High School. Its synopsis states, “Felix Love, a transgender seventeen-year-old, attempts to get revenge by catfishing his anonymous bully, but lands in a quasi-love triangle with his former enemy and his best friend.”
“Catfishing” is the practice of creating a fictional persona or fake identity, typically online, and attempting to compromise a victim in some fashion.
A growing number of books, aimed at children as young as age four, now tout transgenderism.
‘Disrupt Schools as Heteronormative Sites’
Those who support placing such materials in school libraries have, at times, expressly said the purpose of such books is to challenge sexual norms.
An article in the Fall 2020 journal of the Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English explored the availability of books depicting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer (LGBTQ+) people in Tulsa Public Schools.
The authors of that article—Adam Crawley, a former elementary school teacher, and Jennifer Pulliam, a current elementary library media specialist—wrote that queer theory “informs our inquiry.”
“Queer theory argues that inclusion is not enough … Instead, heteronormative institutions need to be questioned, challenged, and disrupted ...” Crawley and Pulliam wrote. “While having LGBTQ+ stories in school libraries may seem to emphasize inclusion, such presence can be a vital, initial step to disrupt schools as heteronormative sites.”
At the same time, the profanity routinely used in many public-school library books, if read aloud in class, would violate the student code-of-conduct guidelines in most school districts, parents note.
For example, the student handbook for Santa Fe High School in the Edmond school district prohibits students from using “inappropriate language while accessing the district’s (computer) network. Inappropriate language includes obscene, profane, lewd, vulgar, rude, inflammatory, threatening, or disrespectful language.”
The handbook also states, “Profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity have no place at school, during a school-sponsored activity, or on the school bus. … A student using foul language may be disciplined ...”
Parent Concerns Generate Legislative Response
Lawmakers have responded to parent concerns by filing an array of bills related to school libraries this year.
State Rep. Sherrie Conley, a former teacher who worked in a variety of Oklahoma schools, is among those who have filed legislation.
“We are robbing children of their innocence,” said Conley, R-Newcastle. “Why would we expose them to adult issues at a vulnerable age when we should be not exposing, but protecting them?”
“The protection of our children is of the utmost importance,” said state Rep. Todd Russ, a Cordell Republican who has authored a school-library bill. “Unfortunately, even though we have current state laws that define inappropriate material, we are still finding examples of this in our public-school classrooms and libraries throughout the state on a regular basis. We must do a better job of safeguarding young minds from obscene material.”
Randleman said he supports requiring schools to have parents actively “opt in” before children can access certain materials. Currently, parents have to explicitly opt out.
“Parents want to be involved in a lot of those decisions,” Randleman said.
In addition, Attorney General John O’Connor recently said his office is reviewing complaints filed by parents to determine if certain school-library materials, found in multiple counties, violate state law on obscene materials.
Lack of School Choice a Factor?
In some instances, parents report that local schools have restricted parental involvement. Conley said she has received reports of school districts refusing to provide parents with a list of books checked out by their child.
In other instances, parents say school officials have declined to publicly reveal how they decide what books to include in the library—or even the titles of books that have been removed after review.
Some parents feel one reason school districts have often been unresponsive is because Oklahoma lacks robust school-choice options that allow state funding to follow a child to any school. That leaves many parents with few financially feasible alternatives and may lead school officials to feel, at least unconsciously, that they have the upper hand since parents have little choice but to keep their children in the district.
“If parents want their kids to read these things, I do not have any problem with that,” Shellem said. “But again, it comes back to it being the parent’s choice to do that. And I don’t feel like the schools are doing anywhere near an adequate job of being transparent.”