Students, Community Members Sound Off on Book Challenges

The recent removal of three dozen books from the shelves of Canby’s public school libraries brought students, parents, former teachers and community members to the Canby School Board meeting this week, with the vast majority speaking out against the district’s actions.

For more than 30 minutes, residents voiced their opposition to — or in one case, support of — the district’s removal of more than 35 books last month pending a review process in the summer, based on the requests of two parents.

“Two angry parents,” Canby senior Zachery Woodruff said. “0.01% of the Canby population. That is all it took to remove over 30 books from our library. Without following any form of due process, the books were silently removed from the shelves. We have become ‘that school.’ The school in the media headlines.”

Around 50 students participated in a demonstration at Canby High School in March, carrying signs such as “Educate Not Indoctrinate” and “I Have the Right to Read,” and the books’ removal has been widely covered in regional and statewide media.

The parents’ reasons varied for each title, but they included sexual content, violence, profanity, drinking and drug use, promiscuity and nudity.

“I understand that some parents may not want their children reading certain books, but that doesn’t give them the right to dictate what other people’s children can read,” Woodruff said. “And if there are concerns about appropriateness, we should have a transparent process for evaluating those concerns, not a unilateral, unmonitored ban.”

(The Canby School District gives broad latitude to parents in monitoring and restricting access to library materials, including prohibiting them from checking out certain books at the request of their parent or legal guardian.)

Many of the titles frequently appear on lists of the most banned books in school libraries across the country. Most of them are about or written by Black, Latino, LGBTQ or other similarly underrepresented authors. All but six of the authors on the list are women.

In almost every case, the two parents noted that they had not fully read the materials they were asking to be reconsidered, saying they had reviewed only portions of them or relied on online reviews.

“It’s about more than just the books; it’s about the patterns,” Woodruff said Monday night. “Minority communities are being threatened. Upon reflection, it may speak more volumes if you have read these books. Heartstopper, for instance, has no sexual scenes. It’s just about a gay couple.

“If I were to change it to a heterosexual relationship, would it still be banned? The answer is probably no. What else could that indicate? So why are we not taking action?”

One of the parents who submitted the requests for reconsideration, Nicole Cole, also spoke Monday night and defended her actions.

“I did what I thought was right, and I still think it was right,” Cole said. “Some of these books, as I got into them, have really explicit sex. A lot of it. It is not about anyone’s race. It is not about anyone’s gender. It is not about being transgender. It is not about LGBTQ-plus. I didn’t look at any of those things.

“I literally looked at the content of the book and thought, ‘Not every 13-, 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-old can handle this content.’ It is big stuff. It is intense stuff. Look at the books, please.”

The forum grew heated at one point, as an audience member shouted at Cole for deviating from her prepared remarks. School board policy previously required commenters to submit their written remarks ahead of time and stick to the script, but that is no longer the case.

Cole also suggested the district implement an email notification for parents to know what books their children have checked out from the library, for monitoring purposes as well as facilitating discussions at home.

“It is not directed toward anyone or any marginated group,” she said again. “It really isn’t. I can speak for myself and for another parent that submitted.

“We really care what our kids are exposed to, and I don’t think it’s fair that my kid can go to school and check out a book. I don’t know what books are in the library, and I don’t get notified. So, they have access to this sexual instruction, and nobody even tells me.”

Several commenters expressed concerns about the fact that so many of the targeted works involved minority voices and diverse perspectives.

“Simply presenting a list of books that would be taken off the shelves, including books about Mexican American families, was not appropriate,” said Yolanda Sanchez. “It is not appropriate to do this process to remove books that may be directed at our ethnic communities.

“Please do not put Canby in the [cross hairs] of a political agenda. Please involved all concerned. Our children are not political pawns. I’m aware that elections are coming soon. Please don’t use our children to get reelected.”

“The Supreme Court has ruled that the right of all children to read books without discrimination based on viewpoints is guaranteed by the First Amendment,” added Maria Tellez, reading a letter on behalf of the community’s Latino parents.

“Not everyone in our community shares the same viewpoint, but they don’t have the right to impose their beliefs on others based or require that educational programs reflect their personal preference.”

Former Canby teacher and district parent Brianna Snodgrass made her point by way of a sports analogy.

“Let’s say I think football is physically dangerous to my kid, and therefore, I don’t allow them to play for fear of the risk of injury,” she said. “Do I go and push the school board and school district to take funding away from our high school football program because I don’t want my kid playing?

“No, I simply don’t allow my kid to sign up for football because that’s my choice. Therefore, if you are concerned about your child checking out a book that you do not want them to read, please contact the school library and have your child blocked from checking out that book. That is your right as their parent.”

Another former teacher, Debra Harman, compared what’s happening in Canby to what she described as similar efforts underway in places like Florida and Texas, where conservative politicians and activists have been successful in restricting students’ access to pro-LGBTQ literature and other diverse content.

“This movement is like the McCarthy hearings of the ’50s, when the Red Scare motivated people to hush up or be censored,” she said. “Book banning is not new.”

She encouraged Canby officials to follow the model recently demonstrated in the neighboring West Linn-Wilsonville School District, where parents earlier this year asked the district to review nine titles (almost all of which were also challenged in Canby).

The district convened a nine-member committee comprised of parents, teachers, librarians and community members to evaluate the books, ultimately deciding to keep all nine. Pursuant to that policy, the books remained on school shelves while they were being reviewed.

“The problem, essentially, is this: When we remove books in which diverse characters are featured, we tell the readers who gravitate to them that they don’t matter, that they are invisible,” Harman said.

Parent Eric Pfeiffer-Robinson said he has begun reading the books that are on Canby’s list for reconsideration, including The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

“It wasn’t easy to read,” he said. “I wish I was in a book group and I could have talked about it with people, because child abuse and child trauma are very difficult themes. But I don’t think that precludes it us from discussing those topics with our children.”

Pfeiffer-Robinson cited personal experiences and stories he has heard in suggesting that the community and its schools have not always been welcoming places for minority families.

“To me, the theme seems like white supremacism,” he said. “And I just wanted to say that as our representatives, you are not kings and queens. You are not gods. You are representing us in a democracy. And I want to ask you to resist white supremacism, and if you’re not prepared to do that, please resign.”

Another parent, Kristi Smith, said she has also been reading through the list of titles, and on Monday night discussed Beyond Magenta, a nonfiction book recounting the experiences of six transgender or gender-neutral young adults.

District parent Lesley Paradis had asked that the title be reconsidered for supposed “pedophilia” and what she termed “explicit gender ideologies.”

“How is this unchallengeable?” Smith asked. “Just because you don’t understand something or you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s obscene or inappropriate. Seeing oneself reflected in books makes a huge difference to all of us, and in the case of transgender youths, the difference can literally be life and death.

“The Canby student body is composed of all different types of people. Trans youth live here and are not going anywhere.”

Local parent and former educator Janet Lowrey said the decision to remove books from the library would only harm students.

“Like it or not, our teenagers already face sexual violence, violence, profanity, drug addiction and promiscuity in school, at home, in their places of worship and on social media,” she said.

“We should be equipping our high school students with access to fictional and nonfictional accounts of these things, so they can identify them, process them and critically think about them, and then make informed decisions about their own lives.”

Two current Canby School Board members, Dawn Depner and Stefani Carlson, who are seeking a second term in the May 16 election, and candidate Lori Boatright, with whom they are running a joint campaign, have made their support of the book challenges one of the central planks of their platform.

Neither incumbent spoke to the issue Monday night, though Depner previously voiced her support for the books being reconsidered, broadly characterizing them as “sexually explicit” and “pornography.”

“There’s no ban on these books,” Depner said during a meeting last month. “They are up for review. In my opinion, this should not be a district decision, but rather a parent’s decision to allow these books to be provided, and maybe have these books provided at home. I have no problem with that.”

Woodruff appeared to address the trio in his remarks Monday night, referencing their campaign slogan “We Demand Excellence.”

“If you demand excellence, you should seek it for all students, which means being receptive to other viewpoints,” Woodruff said. “They can contribute to our understanding of the world and help us to become understanding and empathetic of others.

“By removing almost exclusively content in the aforementioned categories, what you are saying is, ‘We don’t care about your trauma, your struggles, and we don’t want to hear your stories. Be quiet.’ That’s not excellent.”

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