Book Bill Sparks Debate Over State Control and Local School Board Authority


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HARTFORD — Democratic legislators want to make it more difficult for local boards of education to remove contentious books from school libraries.  

Education Committee members heard testimony this week on a bill that would prohibit local school boards from removing any book with content related to human sexuality. The legislation also prevents elected school officials from restricting a book’s access based on partisan, religious or moral reasons.

Ellen Paul, executive director for the Connecticut Library Consortium, cited the recent rise in book challenges as the impetus for the proposal.  

“Over the last few years, we have seen a growing number of attempts to remove books from school library collections — not because the books do not fit into the established collection development policy, but because an individual does not like the ideas contained in those books,” she said, adding that students have a right to access a diverse range of information, stories, perspectives and ideas.

Local officials in Darien, Guilford, Old Lyme, Fairfield, Brookfield, Newtown, Colchester and Westport have all grappled with book disputes in the last few years. The vast majority of those challenges related to the age-appropriateness of books featuring sexually explicit themes or content.  

Despite the concerns, none of the challenges resulted in the removal of the disputed books from the library shelves. In each case, local town or school officials debated the issue and voted to keep the flagged books in circulation.  

According to Leslie Wolfgang, director of public policy for the Family Institute of Connecticut, the proposed legislation upends the local democratic process through which decisions about book challenges have been made.  

“It’s better to have community involvement on a local level, accountable through an election process,” she said. “We need to have a process where everybody can have influence on a local level to help decide what’s appropriate in the public school library.”

In the 1982 case Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects a student’s right to receive information.  

State Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, said Connecticut’s bill is necessary to preserve those recognized rights of children. 

“If parents have concerns about specific titles, that becomes an issue between the parent and the child and what they can read. They don’t want the materials, but they can’t deny access to all children because of their comfort level,” she said.

But resident Susan Zabohonski pushed back saying that the First Amendment doesn’t cover vulgar material.  As currently written, she said, the bill is too broad and would prevent local school boards from removing sexually explicit materials from even grammar school libraries.  

“Children are censored from many things,” she said. “They can’t go to a rated R movie. They can’t purchase a game that’s rated R. If there’s a Playboy magazine, it’s put behind a counter behind a brown paper bag. So why in school is it OK to present this type of material?”

The section of the legislation prohibiting the removal of books related to sexual health and human sexuality remained a sticking point for Republican lawmakers. 

“I believe there are certain books that don’t belong in the library,” State Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, R-Prospect, said. “To me, it should be about educating our children in math, science, all of those things, and it’s up to the parents for other things. Although I don’t believe in banning books, I also think that there are certain books that should not be in certain sections, when you’re talking about masturbation or any of these things. That is not appropriate in my opinion. I’m very much for parental rights and as a mom, I want to know what my children are reading.”

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, suggested changes to the bill that would allow the removal of material with sexual content that may be inappropriate for young children.   

“Maybe we have to add language back in what the boards can do if there’s something egregious that’s not age appropriate and that’s offensive to the parents in the district, so that they have an avenue to go back to the board,” she said. 

But Elaine Shapiro, a former library media specialist at Broad Brook Elementary School in East Windsor, said librarians already evaluate the age appropriateness of materials when purchasing books for their schools. She emphasized the importance of curating a diverse collection of materials for students. 

“Books are mirrors and books are windows,” she said. “Parents absolutely have the right to control and guide their own children and what they read. They do not have the right to dictate what other children read.”

State Rep. Anne Dauphinais, R-Plainville, expressed concern that the state was trying to usurp the role of local boards of education. She maintained that local communities, with the participation and input of parents, elected officials, teachers and librarians, should be making the decisions about what books are available at their school libraries. 

“We’ll be inserting state policy into local policies. We inflict this policy or this law in our state and every town has to follow it. It is not a communal decision, it’s a state decision,” she said.