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SALT LAKE CITY — Several school district representatives told lawmakers Wednesday that the implementation of a new state law that bans certain "sensitive materials" in schools is alienating teachers and exhausting resources.
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature approved the contentious HB374, which lawmakers have described as a way to weed out content found to be pornographic from K-12 libraries and classrooms.
The Utah State Board of Education later approved a library materials model policy to outline the process for identifying materials that should be removed from schools.
'Topics on race are swiftly removed'
Jackson Smith, a student at Park City High School, said during an Education Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday that the bill has led to books with important perspectives being withheld from his classmates.
The student said he views HB374 as an attempt to limit student access to books that feature diverse and marginalized perspectives.
"Content isn't targeted at protecting students, it's meant to hide marginalized voices," he said. "Hundreds of books, ranging from discussions on topics like gender equality and LGBTQIA+ representation have been pulled from the shelves. Topics on race, which often discuss inequities of being nonwhite, are swiftly removed, as not to offend any parents."
"Schools should teach us how to think, not what to think," he added.
He said the books under question are often "a necessity" that students need access to for their education and that parents are primarily pushing back against books that make them feel uncomfortable. The decision to challenge a book should never be up to a single person, he said.
"I stand before you today with a complete resolve of a student who has read many of the books pundits and demagogues refer to as propaganda or pornography and I can assure you that banning these books will not solve anything," Smith said.
Shane Farnsworth, Alpine School District superintendent, said the district became aware of possible violations of HB374 in district schools through parent emails.
This prompted the district to conduct an internal review, which identified 52 titles that Farnsworth said "merited further review."
The district held off on a formal review of the 52 titles until it finalized its book review policy. "At that point, we developed 25 district committees that consisted of patrons and employees from each of our secondary schools. There were more patrons than employees on those committees," Farnsworth said.
Then, those committees got to work reviewing the titles.
Farnsworth said that 49 of the 52 reviews have been finalized. Of the 49 titles, 22 have been removed, 18 have been "restricted either by age-appropriate or parent permission," and nine have been kept in schools.
He said that to his knowledge, there is only one patron-requested review going on in district schools and the other 52 books were identified through the internal review.
'Teachers under threat'
Alpine School Board President Mark Clement explained how the district's review process worked prior to the passing of HB374 — and how he says the new process is negatively impacting teachers and librarians.
"There was really a process that worked really well," Clement said. "Librarians are trained professionals. They are not trying to peddle pornography for students, they're trying to help to protect them."
I hope you realize there's also been a large negative in terms of teachers feeling that they are not trusted or that they are being labeled as pushing pornography, when really what they're trying to do is help children learn.
–Mark Clement, Alpine School District
With the previous process, if a student complained about a particular title, Clement said the librarian would suggest books that were "appropriate for that student's values and emotional needs."
"If a parent didn't want their child to access certain classes of books, they could contact the library and (the librarian) would prohibit those from being checked out," Clement said.
If a parent objected to instructional materials provided by a teacher, the teacher would then provide alternate materials to the student. Clement said that as soon as the district becomes aware that a book needs to be examined, students can no longer check that book out.
This has led to the ACLU of Utah contacting the district with concerns about removing books without them going through the review process.
Clement said that since the passage of the bill, someone reported that pornography was being distributed to students at a district school, which led to police arriving at the school's library, "which has scared our librarians and made them less effective."
"We've had English teachers that just brought all their books into the principal's office and said, 'I'm not going to teach anything if you're going to be so critical of what I'm doing and cause me to be under threat of violation of a law and persecution," Clement said.
He concluded his presentation with a strong message to the committee.
"I hope you realize there's also been a large negative in terms of teachers feeling that they are not trusted or that they are being labeled as pushing pornography, when really what they're trying to do is help children learn," Clement said.
Is the law ambiguous?
Wendy Crossland, vice president of the Park City School Board, said that the district has worked diligently to adopt a policy that is aligned with state and federal law, and that reflects the Utah attorney general's interpretation of HB374.
"The ambiguity inherent in the law and the interpretation of it places a burden on our local education agencies for not just time and resources, but also managing the exposure of potential and likely litigation," Crossland said.
She added that she believes the district's policy supports its teachers to be the best for the student.
"We also have a policy that leans into parental choice and the ability of a caretaker to be part of a choice of what their child reads and what is best for their child. The policy does this while also protecting our students from both harm and from infringement on their rights," Crossland said.
Lyndsay Huntsman, career and technical education director at Park City School District, said that HB374 is "monopolizing resources and time at every level."
This, she said, ultimately distracts from the learning process and asks "lay people without proper training" to interpret the law.
"Literature affords us an opportunity as educators to provide mirrors and windows for our students. Our students live in an interconnected, diverse and rapidly changing world. Collectively, we could prepare our students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be able to successfully navigate a complex and interconnected world while also understanding cultural differences," Huntsman said.
Schools should teach us how to think, not what to think.
–Jackson Smith, Park City High School student
She urged the Legislature to empower parents to make decisions for their own students, without impacting the possibilities for other students to explore books that may contain sensitive materials.
"Accusing educators of harboring pornographic material in classrooms and school library shelves is unfair," Huntsman said. "Let's trust our educators to make age-appropriate and topic-appropriate selections, aligned to USBE-approved standards."