Guilford — Public Schools Superintendent Paul Freeman and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Amity Goss, sat down with CT Examiner on Thursday to respond to the local debate regarding school libraries, book bans, and the selection of appropriate reading materials for middle- and high-school-aged students in the district’s school libraries.
According to the American Library Association, the number of challenged books across the country has skyrocketed over the past two years with 223 books challenged in 2020, 1,858 in 2021 and 2,571 in 2022. In Connecticut, the local public schools have been at the center of a statewide debate.
In Guilford, five books, Flamer by Mike Curato, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and SExual Health by Robie Harris, Me and EArl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison are all the subject of complaints by Danielle Scarpellino, a former candidate for a seat on the Board of Education. Following procedure, the board will discuss the books at its September meeting.
“Four are for books housed in school libraries, which means we’re probably talking about a single copy or an electronic copy of those texts,” Freeman said. “One is for a curricular book that has been used in AP English class that is offered primarily for seniors and occasionally juniors.”
Though Scarpellino has written across the top of the complaint forms that she is not asking for the books to be banned, by filing a book challenge, she is asking that the board stop shelving or using those books, said Freeman.
“If the board directs us to stop shelving or using those books with students, that would by any definition would be banning those books from usage in the Guilford Public Schools,” he said. “I can’t speak to how she’s challenging those books and not asking for a ban. I can’t explain that.”
Freeman said that librarians, or media specialists as they’re officially titled in Guilford Public Schools, fall under the teacher contract.
“They’re viewed very similarly to classroom teachers,” he said. “In many ways they make decisions the way classroom teachers make decisions, with the exception that a classroom teacher may have a classroom library of tens of books and a school media specialist will have a school library where if we’re lucky will have books in the thousands.”
The Guilford school libraries have their own inherent restrictions, whether it be space, budget, or grade level appropriateness, Freeman said.
“The books that are being discussed here, none of those books are shelved in any of our elementary schools,” he said. “None of those books are shelved at Baldwin Intermediate, which is a 5th and 6th grade level. The books being discussed are exclusively shelved or used at the high school or Adams Middle School.”
As an academic library, Freeman said, though books are provided for free reading, space is limited and books are regularly removed.
“The easiest example is scientific texts,” he said. “When scientific texts get to 10 and 20 years old and the science has moved forward, even though there may not be anything wrong with that book, the book has become dated. It has become antiquated. We don’t continue to shelve all of those. Those are individual decisions. The librarians don’t wait for someone to say Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. They make these decisions individually and constantly.”
When it comes to picking what books, whether it be for recreation or for class reading, Goss said librarians have a detailed process of picking material.
“They look for award winning books that are recommended by professional organizations,” she said. “They vet them by looking at the age levels from the publisher. If the publisher says this is appropriate for 9 to 12 year old students, they look at it further. They do a phenomenal amount of research as they’re choosing those books. I’m surprised at the level at which they look at each of the titles. They do pick carefully what’s coming into the library.”
“The state of Connecticut offers us access to a structured electronic catalog,” Freeman said. “Adams subscribes to that catalog. It gives access to 9,000 to 10,000 titles.”
With so many books available, it is an impossibility for librarians to read all the books being accepted, and Freeman said they follow recommendations that come from the school library association and the state of Connecticut.
When it comes to determining the appropriateness of a book being checked out of a library to be read by a student, Freeman said they rely on parents to make that decision. He also recognized that at any school, students will be at varying degrees of development.
“Think of our high school,” he said. “1,100 students move through that high school. We have one high school media specialist who has thousands of books shelved. We believe we need to provide books that are appropriate for the students in that building. We have 14 to 18 year olds. We have some precocious and mature 14 year olds and we have immature 18 year olds. It really is a parental right and responsibility for the parents to stay engaged in that.”
He said that though parents haven’t asked him or the schools to ban books until now, they have asked how staff control student access to what parents may deem inappropriate.
“The answer is we count on you,” he said. “Parents need to be talking to their kids about what books they are reading and what books they should be reading. Parents need to be looking in backpacks. Parents need to be talking to their kids about their media diets. That’s a really important thing, because our kids have access to our libraries, but they also have access to a much wider world. Those are healthy and important parenting practices. Get two copies and read it together. We can not take the position that we will only shelve books that are appropriate for the least mature youngest student with the most concerned parent. If we did that, we wouldn’t have a rich library.”
He said that parents have access to media specialists just like they have access to classroom teachers, and are welcome to have conversations with them about recommending literature that meets their child’s interests while also not exposing them to what they would deem inappropriate material.
“That’s different than policing books,” Freeman said. “Booksellers would help you that way. A librarian at a public library would help you that way, and our media specialists will work with parents and kids that way. But we will not start rating or red stamping books, restricting books, or policing books in a way that I think can become dangerous and what I think is a slippery slope to banning books. We’re trying to grow students that are going to be full independent critical readers. It is healthier to work from the other end.”
Freeman said Guilford, and the nation, is in a conversation about what decisions should be made by schools and what decisions should be made by parents.
“It’s interesting to see how that argument falls in different places on different topics,” he said. “I would not presume to say that schools should usurp that role, deciding what should children read, or setting up a system where a child – particularly a high school student – thinks if I go into a high school library and I pick up a certain book, alarms are going to go off. Young adults, adolescents, should not feel that way and reading is part of becoming an independent thinking, an independent adult. We are growing future adults and we need to make sure our students don’t feel policed in our schools.”
Freeman and the board had recently come under scrutiny by several parents about the removal of seven Dr. Seuss books from the Melissa Jones Elementary School in 2021, with accusations of banning the books from the library.
“Neither the Board of Education, nor I, banned those seven titles,” he said. “When we looked at our five libraries where those are most likely to be age appropriate, the books don’t exist in three of those libraries. Some of those seven books are on the shelves in two of the five. We’ve only gone to electronic tracking of those books in the last several years. We know we don’t have them, but we don’t know if we ever had them. We don’t know if at some point those librarians took them off the shelves, and we don’t know how that decision was made. We don’t know if they got damaged or if they became less popular.”
Seuss Enterprises announced in March 2021 that six books from their catalog would no longer be published due to portraying “people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
“Even the publisher from a strictly financial position recognized those books weren’t moving in the way other Dr. Seuss titles moved,” Freeman said. “In our libraries, they came off the shelves in a period of time. We know recently, at one of them, it happened in 2021. That librarian removed them from the shelves because they weren’t moving. They weren’t popular, and because the publisher and other respected organizations like the Connecticut Library Association said those books had become antiquated and outdated in their presentation, just like a science book can become outdated. Nobody in this organization has asked that librarian to come into an office to justify and defend her decision. We do not and will not do that. We trust our classroom teachers, including our media specialists to make thoughtful and informed decisions about the books they purchase and shelve and the books they weed out of the library.”
Since the books were removed from Melissa Jones School, he said, there hasn’t been a single request for any of them, either by a student or a parent, but if they did, the book would be provided through an inter-library loan.
In regards to The Bluest Eye, Freeman said that the book has been a part of the AP English curriculum for 30 years.
“We have teachers who remember reading it as students in Guilford High School without complaint until this year,” he said. “(Toni Morrison) is a highly regarded author. She’s an award winning author.”
Though AP doesn’t require usage of The Bluest Eye, he said, it is one of the most commonly used texts in the AP English exam.
“We know AP thinks highly of it,” he said, and thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the book wasn’t taught anymore, as there are plenty more texts out there, but it would be a bad decision and would be the beginning of a slippery slope.
“I don’t think elected government officials should be making individual academic decisions for teachers,” he said. “The Board of Ed is required to approve curricula at a very broad level. Within curricula, particularly in Guilford, teachers have a large degree of academic and professional latitude. As they should. It’s what’s made Guilford the school system that we are. It makes classes current and relevant for the students that are there. Teachers can make on the ground daily decisions about their students. If we start saying this book made some people uncomfortable, therefore as an academic, you can’t choose that book, it starts to set up this terrible dynamic. Literature is intended to be emotional, to be challenging. There are antagonists in books for a reason. Our hero can’t be the hero without a villain. There has to be challenging moments in texts. Shakespeare is full of murder, fratricide, patricide, incest; that doesn’t mean Shakespeare is advocating those things.
“The moments in Flamer where that child is wrestling with his sexuality are not written to be scandalous. They are the most uncomfortable moments in the book because they’re uncomfortable for that child wrestling with those moments. As a story of persistence and resilience, you can’t teach a kid you can get through the rough times and come out stronger on the other side without portraying the rough times. You can’t sanitize literature. The Bluest Eye isn’t advocating incest. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about challenging things and that students can’t read about difficult, challenging things. That book isn’t at the elementary schools. That book is used in an AP English course.”
He said the Board of Education will always respond to appropriately filed challenges for individual books.“ I’m beginning my 13th year in Guilford and these five book challenges are the first I’ve ever received,” he said. “We’ve been using The Bluest Eye for 30 years and this is the first time we’ve received a parental complaint about it. I don’t know what has changed. Nobody complained when the Dr. Seuss titles fell off the shelves at Cox or Leete.”