Arizona lawmakers are trying to restrict certain books in schools. But this isn't the first time

Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2022 - 2:09pm
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Amid the national debate over parents’ rights and responsibilities in their kids’ schools, Arizona lawmakers are considering measures that supporters say would increase transparency in public schools.

"There’s nothing more sacred than the innocence of a child," said Rep. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican, who was testifying before a House committee earlier this year.

He’s the sponsor of a bill that would prohibit public schools from using or referring students to any sexually explicit materials. There are exemptions for classical literature, early American literature, or books needed to get college credit. But, students would need their parents’ permission before reading those.

"Since the 1960s, Arizona has protected children from sexually explicit material through our criminal code. However, sadly in the 1960’s, when they crafted the obscenity chapter of our criminal code, they couldn’t have imagined some of the obscenity that would have crept its way into public schools in the 2000s," said Hoffman.

In his testimony, Hoffman listed several materials he’d come across, including some that came with multiple YouTube warnings. And, he said that’s a big problem for students.

"This is a documented issue and showing these types of materials, whether textual, whether video, whether imagery-based – it has long-term, lasting, adverse medical and health impacts, not to mention mental health impacts on children," he said.

The Show spoke with Jean Kilker, a teacher-librarian at a Valley school and co-chair of the Teacher-Librarian Division of the Arizona Library Association, about the proposal.

"Libraries do not choose, especially school libraries, do not choose sexually-explicit material," said Kilker.

The effort to stop kids from reading certain books is not a new one, and it’s not just happening in Arizona. But Harvey Graff, professor emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at Ohio State University says what we’re seeing today is historically unprecedented.

"Historically, the people trying to ban literature that they did not like read it. Today, and this is clear from cases I’ve examined across the country, the banners are ignorant of the contents of the very items that they wish to ban," said Graff.

Graff cites the case of his colleague Ashley Hope Pérez, who’s written three young adult novels. Her latest book, published in 2015, called "Out of Darkness" is the love story of two teenagers, a Mexican-American girl and an African American boy, set in rural Texas in the 1930s. The book has won national awards, but in late 2020, it started to be banned in Texas schools, as well as those in other states. Graff says not all young adult authors are treated — or banned equally.

"The research that people are doing right now shows that you can have sexually offending and pornographic mentioning novels if they’re written particularly by white men. They don’t get challenged. But if they’re written by women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, gay, lesbian, transgender, gender neutral people, then they’re candidates for the banners who are offended by books that they will not or cannot read," said Graff.

Graff says efforts to ban books in schools is denying the need to have an open and ongoing conversation between interested parties. And, he believes the students are the ones losing out.

"Kids’ rights are being trashed. We fought for more than 100 years in this country, and they’re being trashed – in some cases by their own parents," Graff said.

Hear the full interview with Harvey Graff

Parental rights in schools is a big topic nationally right now, and another bill dealing with that issue is also moving through the Arizona Legislature. Among other provisions, this measure would require school district governing boards and charter school governing bodies to approve all books in school libraries, to make publicly available all books that’ve been bought for the library for at least 60 days after the purchase and to allow parents to get a list of the books their child has checked out.

Jean Kilker of the Arizona Library Association calls much of that redundant.

"In this day and age, I can’t imagine a school without an online catalog. Because the books are all there. And that is open to anyone searching for books, just like the public library catalog," Kilker said.

Kilker says there’s a process in place for Arizona schools to buy new books for their libraries. And, while it varies by district, she says it’s generally a long process that involves a lot of vetting of the books by a lot of people — often, including school board members.

"They trust us, the school board gives the professional teacher-librarian the charge of making sure that the books that are purchased for students meet the school, the district, the community and the students’ standards. And of course that they are good literature, too," said Kilker.

Hear the full interview with Jean Kilker

The bill dealing with requirements for buying books for school libraries has cleared the Arizona House and is awaiting debate in the Senate. The measure to ban sexually explicit materials in schools has also been approved by the House and is waiting for a committee hearing in the Senate.

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