After book challenge at Anoka High, district revises policies

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2014 - 9:16 PM

Parents will now be notified in advance if a book or other title includes provocative or questionable content.

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A detail of the cover, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

In the wake of a recent book challenge that evoked controversy, riled parents on both sides and sent teens flocking to the library to read the book in question, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has revised its policies on how classroom and library materials are selected and the process for parents to object.

The biggest change that parents may notice: The policies now include specific language about advance parental notification if a book, film or other selection includes provocative or questionable content. That means parents can expect a heads-up before something potentially controversial lands on their child’s desk or comes home in a backpack.

That didn’t happen when the district’s high school librarians chose the acclaimed novel “Eleanor & Park” for last year’s voluntary summer reading program.

“When you live through it, you realize there are things that can be done a little bit better,” said Joel VerDuin, the district’s chief technology and information officer, who oversaw the revisions. “The policy looked good on paper, but you find out there are holes or things you could do better.”

VerDuin said these occurrences are “very few and far between.”

“Eleanor & Park” is a young adult novel about first love, bullying, abuse and poverty. The parents of an Anoka High freshman, partnering with the Parents Action League, challenged the book’s place in school libraries, calling it “vile profanity.” They cited 227 instances of coarse language and sexuality and demanded it be pulled from library shelves.

The ensuing controversy drew national attention when the district and the Anoka County Library withdrew an invitation to Omaha author Rainbow Rowell to speak about the book.

Per district policy, Anoka High principal Mike Farley convened a committee of parents, staff and a student to review the book. It ultimately determined that it was powerful, realistic and appropriate for high schoolers.

Afterward, the district decided to revise its policy. The school board approved the changes at Monday night’s meeting. The revisions also provide more detail about procedures when a book or other item is challenged. It’s mostly tweaks vs. a wholesale rewrite, said VerDuin.

Under the revisions, “In any case where materials selected may be of questionable fit for some students in the intended audience, educators should consult with a principal regarding parental notification and potential options for alternatives,”

Under state law, parents have the right to opt their child out of a program or assignment if they find content objectionable, VerDuin said.

Adding that language was important for the state’s largest school district, which has nearly 40,000 students and runs from Brooklyn Park to Anoka and Coon Rapids.

“We have different parents with different tolerance levels. Not everyone sees things the same way,” VerDuin said. “We do have a philosophical belief that parents should choose what’s appropriate for their children.”

The goal of the policy isn’t to squelch dialogue; it’s to make those conversations and deliberations more productive, he said.

Anoka-Hennepin has had a few challenges over the years but has never removed a book from the library.

“You can’t create something that avoids controversy. You need a process that can handle it and gets people into thoughtful discussion,” VerDuin said. “Instead of saying, ‘Why don’t we want the material?’ we should ask, ‘Why did we choose it in the first place? What purpose does it serve?’ ”

He said the district’s “Eleanor & Park” review was a “thoughtful debate that weighted things from all sides and opinions.”

“ ‘Eleanor & Park’ was a very popular read. It deals with a lot of things kids in our high schools and middle schools deal with,” VerDuin said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804

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