In Stillwater, school library books are the latest moral outrage to dominate school board meetings.
Two books were pulled from shelves in Tulsa Public Schools after a right-wing Twitter account’s post went viral.
And in Norman, a high school English teacher who posted a link to banned books in her classroom resigned, drawing national attention.
In these three Oklahoma communities, a simmering debate over school library books has boiled over.
Calls to ban books have been around for decades, but coordinated social media efforts can spread them far, wide and at lightning speed. Now, complaints from a vocal few threaten to set off a blanket ban or lead to self-censorship out of fear — limiting book choices for thousands of students in a single district.
“What we’re really talking about here is a vocal minority trying to dictate what other people’s families, what other people’s children, should be reading in order to advance their own agendas,” said Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association.
The organization’s recent poll found that 71% of voters opposed pushes to remove books from public libraries.
And yet, attempts to ban or restrict books in U.S schools exceed any point in the 20 years the American Library Association has kept track, with at least 681 such attempts through August. In 2021, there were 729 total — the most the organization has documented in a year. Most targeted multiple titles.
Many try to remove texts with racism and gender identity as central themes, part of a backlash to so-called critical race theory bans, like Oklahoma’s House Bill 1775. Books like “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe are among the most frequently challenged.
To be sure, Stillwater, Norman and Tulsa aren’t the only communities focusing time and resources on evaluating challenged books. A community group challenged 47 books last November in Bristow Public Schools, a rural community 30 miles southwest of Tulsa.
The district pulled the books to be reviewed, according to the district’s Facebook post, landing Bristow on a national list of banned books by PEN America. (The organization considers this a ban since students were unable to access the books for a time.)
According to Bristow, eight were ultimately removed, nine books weren’t found in the school district and 30 remain available.
The situation inspired a state law that goes into effect Nov. 1 requiring school libraries to reflect “community standards” and contain age-appropriate materials. But the bill, authored by Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, doesn’t describe how communities are to develop those standards.
“Yes, it’s vague, but it’s vague in such a way to allow local districts to decide what fits and doesn’t fit,” Hilbert said.
The bill distances the state from standards by national organizations, such as the American Library Association. It was one of several bills targeting school library content this year, but the only one approved by the Legislature. Other, more aggressive legislation would have given individual parents more power to remove books from libraries and penalized librarians with fines if they didn’t comply.
Stillwater: From Masks to Bathrooms to Books
In Stillwater, home to the state’s second-largest public university, community members in 2020 clashed over COVID-19 precautions and city officials withdrew a mask mandate in stores and restaurants after workers were threatened with violence. School board meetings, too, became tense, requiring security officers.
This spring, with mask mandates behind them, the school board again faced an onslaught of complaints over its policy allowing students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. Secretary of Education Ryan Walters demanded they reverse their policy and make “students only use the bathroom of their God-given natural sex.” In May, a new state law requiring students to use the bathroom of the gender on their original birth certificate, or a single occupancy restroom, at all Oklahoma schools forced the district to change.
Before students returned from the summer break, residents started filling the public comment segment of school board meetings, raging over books in the libraries.
Stillwater resident Riley Flack, who led an effort to recall the city’s mayor and city council in 2020 over the city’s mask mandate and appeared on FOX News in April about Stillwater schools’ bathroom policy, read from one challenged book, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” The characters used the same derogatory term for a woman’s reproductive organs as Donald Trump used in an Access Hollywood audio published one month before the 2016 presidential election.
“I don’t feel comfortable reading it to adults. Thirteen-year-olds can check this book out. And you guys bought it for them and provided it for them and it needs to be corrected ASAP,” Flack said.
Walters weighed in with a video posted to his Twitter account. “Stillwater, don’t put pornography in front of kids,” he said, calling their process for evaluating challenged books “unacceptable.”
These public complaints far outnumber written complaints, which included only one as of August. That book, “The Seventeen Guide to Sex and Your Body,” still appeared in an online catalog despite being lost for more than a decade.
Supporters of maintaining book access are also speaking out. Robin Fuxa, a parent and assistant professor of education at Oklahoma State University, wrote about the dangers of book censorship in a 2017 blog post.
“Children are sharp, and they read using their own moral compass. Those values instilled, most often by family, are used to guide them through their reading. Books do not hold a power to corrupt, as some may fear,” she said at the Aug. 9 school board meeting. “Books do have a power of a different kind. They have the power to save lives by letting kids feel seen.”
Tulsa: A Book’s Removal Stems from Social Media Post
The Twitter account Libs of Tik Tok set off a firestorm in July with a viral post about Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with 36,000 students. The post criticized the district for carrying the books “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Flamer.” In response, the district removed the books from the libraries.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and Walters, a candidate for state superintendent, broadcast their outrage.
Walters said he posted images from the books on his Facebook page, but the posts were censored. “It’s a really sad day when woke Facebook has higher standards than (Superintendent) Gist at Tulsa Public Schools.”
Hofmeister called on the district to remove the books. “This is inappropriate, sexually explicit material. It’s pornography that does not belong in any public school library,” she wrote. Broadening her stance, Hofmeister called on all state schools to pull similarly objectionable materials.
According to Tulsa Public Schools, it has yet to receive a written complaint from a district parent or teacher. It’s the first time the district has pulled books prior to receiving a formal complaint, said Vicki Ruzicka, the district’s manager of library services.
“Parents and teachers were sharing the social media post with leaders in our school district. The pornography claim in the post is something our leaders took very seriously because that is against our own policy,” she said.
“Gender Queer: A Memoir” was the most banned book of 2021, according to the American Libraries Association. It’s a memoir about the author’s journey to coming out as nonbinary. A handful of the book’s numerous illustrations depict nude characters and sexual scenarios — images critics have spread on social media.
Dozens of schools have pulled the book from shelves and Republican officials in a handful of states have called for it to be banned. In Michigan, the backlash turned residents of one town against the public library and in August, a slim majority voted to defund the library, according to The Washington Post.
But last month, a judge in Virginia threw out a lawsuit that had sought to declare “Gender Queer: A Memoir”, and another book, “A Court of Mist and Fury” as obscene for children and limit the books’ distribution. The judge cited state law as well as principles under the U.S. Constitution in striking down the suit.
Ruzicka said books like “Gender Queer” have likely attracted controversy due to their connection to the LGBTQ community.
“These are books that have characters that don’t have mainstream sexual identities. And they represent a community that I think needs representation in literature,” she said. “It’s concerning that attacks seem to be happening to that community.”
In Norman, Questions About the Law’s Proper Application
News of high school teacher Summer Boismier’s resignation in August, days into the new school year, fell heavily on the Norman community, still reeling from the recent firing of another teacher for leaking photos of threatening graffiti in a high school bathroom.
Norman Public Schools had responded to House Bill 1775, a state law prohibiting certain conversations about race and gender in schools, by asking teachers to read each book in their classroom or provide two sources vouching for its appropriateness.
Boismier responded by covering her bookshelf in red butcher paper and the words “books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She included a QR code that linked to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned collection, which gives young people free access to books that may be banned in their schools.
A parent complained, and Boismier, after meeting with district administrators, resigned. After Walters publicly called for her teaching credentials to be revoked, Boismier began receiving threatening messages and had to leave her home.
She’s also seen an outpouring of support. A group of moms made yard signs with the QR code and a local bookstore is selling banned books T-shirts. And an Oklahoma City church hosted a banned book read out.
Norman’s superintendent, Nick Migliorino, apologized in a written statement, saying the timing and manner of the guidance to teachers “missed the mark.” He said the parent’s complaint was limited to the teacher’s political speech in the classroom — there was no violation of House Bill 1775, or any book in her classroom, or the QR code she provided.
Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, said he believes House Bill 1775, which he authored, is often misunderstood and sometimes, like in Norman, taken out of context.
“So many people are saying if somebody feels guilt or shame, then we violated the law and that’s not what the law says. It says that you’re not going to teach it in such a way that they feel like they should feel guilt or shame,” he said.
He said he didn’t intend for teachers to self-censor their bookshelves or stop teaching certain novels, just to be mindful of teaching in a way that doesn’t violate the eight concepts outlined in the law.
West said he appreciated hearing from Moore Public Schools’ superintendent recently about a couple of challenged books, and how the district was handling the complaints.
“I would much rather people go through the full process before vetting these kinds of arguments in the media or social media because there is a process,” he said.
Reporter Ari Fife contributed to this story.