Coming to a board meeting near you

Be prepared for challenges to books and curricular resources in your school district

While most school board meetings are quiet affairs with relatively few members of the public present, in an increasing number of places nationally and across New Jersey, board meetings have become less sedate. Media coverage of these school board meetings shows residents attending school board meetings loudly opposing mask mandates and other COVID protocols. But while the news tends to focus on community responses to district COVID policy, residents in a growing number of communities—including right here in New Jersey—are showing up at board meetings challenging the literature used in district curricula and on school library shelves.

At many school board meetings, the same lists of books are being challenged, pointing to the reality that this is part of an organized campaign, not a mere coincidence.

In addition to challenges at school board meetings, board members, school librarians and other educators have reported threats to their livelihoods and physical safety for the professional decisions they have made concerning what books are made available to students. NJEA condemns these threats and implores members receiving them to report them to their administrators, their association representatives, and, in cases involving threats of violence, law enforcement.

On the American Library Association’s list of the top 10 most challenged books, literature addressing race, sexual orientation and gender identity dominate the themes, but there is a striking difference between what books have been challenged in recent years. In 2019, for example, eight of the 10 books on the list were challenged for LGBTQIA+ content. In 2020, while a novel about a transgender girl topped the list, seven of the top 10 most challenged books contained race-related content.

At its March 19, 2016 Delegate Assembly meeting, NJEA reaffirmed its longstanding policies on intellectual freedom and access to instructional materials in a policy titled “Equity in Instruction and Instructional Materials.” This policy, which begins with the words “NJEA believes that equality for all individuals should extend to their representation in instruction and in instructional materials,” is illustrative of NJEA’s belief in equity, intellectual freedom and in being honest with our students when teaching the full story of America’s history and its ongoing struggle for racial justice.

The state of New Jersey has demonstrated its commitment as well, through the creation of the Holocaust Education, the Amistad, and the Asian American Pacific Islander commissions, as well as a requirement for instruction in the societal and historical contributions of LGBTQ figures and people with disabilities.

Moreover, on March 1, 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring instruction to “highlight and promote diversity, including economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance; examine the impact that unconscious bias and economic disparities have at both an individual level and on society as a whole; and encourage safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for all students regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, and religious beliefs.”

School librarians and media specialists use their expertise to meet the requirements of such state laws and regulations, district curricula, and their day-to-day experience with students and staff to understand, anticipate, and appropriately respond to the information needs and reading interests of the school community. The work school librarians and media specialists do, which requires a graduate degree, builds school libraries that reflect a diversity of viewpoints, ideas, and authors that stimulate students’ intellectual growth, social development and emotional well-being. Their deliberative work should not be undone through reactionary censorship campaigns.

Members of the community have the right to ask questions about and even challenge what their schools teach and which books are selected for the shelves of district libraries. But the fate of any title should not be based on the temperature of a school board meeting, the decibel level of a vocal segment of the community, or the agendas of any political party. 

Nearly all school boards in New Jersey have policies and established procedures to address challenges to books and other curricular resources. All NJEA members should become familiar with the policies and procedures in their districts and consult with their districts’ librarians and media specialists to determine whether the polices are objective, impartial, and protective of freedom of thought and inquiry. 

Perhaps most importantly, members should pay close attention to what is happening at the school board meetings both where they work and where they live to ensure that school libraries remain havens of truth and intellectual freedom.