Emails Show Confused Response to Palomar Challenge in Rio Rancho

PalomarAlthough we got word last week that Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez would be returning to high school library shelves in Rio Rancho, New Mexico after a parent’s challenge was resolved, a new report from Albuquerque radio station KUNM indicates that things may not be so straightforward. School district emails obtained via FOIA request show that the book was already removed from the computerized library catalog well before a review committee decided it should not be banned from the high school collection.

The emails released to KUNM reporter Rita Daniels begin with a February 26 message from Rio Rancho High School librarian Brenna McCandless to principal Richard Von Ancken. McCandless reports that parent Catrenna Lopez came to the school library to register a complaint about Palomar, which was added to the collection by a previous librarian. McCandless gives her assessment:

The content is quite adult. The parent has the book at the moment, but I’ve already removed [e.g. deleted] it from the collection because it’s definitely not something we should have….I attempted to find some reviews just to see why it might have been included and the only thing we could find was a review from Library Journal that stated it was “Highly recommended, especially for libraries with Latino populations,” so that might have been the justification for purchase. I already spoke with the mother and let her know I shared her concern and thanked her for bringing it to our attention so that we could rectify the situation.

For reference, the glowing review from Library Journal that McCandless mentions can be found here near the bottom of the page. Ominously, McCandless also told Von Ancken that the rest of the library’s graphic novels were now under scrutiny:

We’re currently going through the graphic novel collection by hand just to make sure nothing else has slipped through the cracks, so if [Lopez] wants to know what else is being done, we’re taking care of it.

McCandless’ hasty response to a parent’s verbal challenge stands in sharp contrast to the procedure outlined in Rio Rancho Public Schools policy 425A:

Review of questioned (“challenged”) materials will be treated objectively, unemotionally, and as a routine matter. Criticisms of print and non-print materials must be submitted in writing on a Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials form obtained from the librarian at the library/media center where the material is housed and submitted to the Superintendent of schools. The Request must be signed and include specific information as to author, title, publisher, and definite citation of objection.

Ironically, Palomar likely would have been quietly removed from the collection without CBLDF or other national free speech groups ever hearing about it–except that Lopez also took the story to local TV station KOAT, which that evening aired a ludicrously biased news report calling the book “sexual, graphic, and not suitable for children.” We covered the story on February 27, citing the same policy as above and urging RRPS to follow it.

When the district email thread released to Daniels picked up again a week later, top administrators had become very concerned with following the challenge policy, which entails forming a review committee to consider the book. Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Carl Leppelman wrote on March 5:

I am requesting that a committee be convened as soon as possible to review the book and make a recommendation to [Superintendent] Dr. Cleveland. Please follow policy 425A. There is normally a form (425b) completed by the person who is challenging the book. It is not prudent to have the form completed. Instead, contact [RRHS Vice Principal] Sherrie Carver and she will give you the specifics of the concern prior to meeting as a committee.

Seeing as the book had already been deleted from the system–in violation of policy, of course–Leppelman’s directive was met with general confusion from Carver and Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction LaJuana Coleman. On March 6, Coleman asked:

Can you clarify why a committee needs to be formed? It appears that the book is off the shelf, answers have been provided and case closed, unless I am missing something.

Carver also expressed doubt that a committee was necessary, since in her view there was “not much to discuss…no question the book needs to be removed from circulation.” Leppelman explained that the district was now following the policy after initially failing to do so, but Coleman still had questions:

I am sorry, but I am completely lost on this. Are you creating the committee or are you asking me to? Where is the form, why is it not prudent to fill it out, I am not sure I understand at all what is being asked. What is the ‘time sensitive’ nature? What does that exactly mean?

Actually, the question of why Leppelman previously said it was “not prudent to have the [challenge] form completed” is quite a good one. In any case, Lopez did finally submit a challenge form on March 12–two weeks after the book had already been deleted from the system and four days before the review committee convened to retroactively judge it.

On the form, Lopez described what she found objectionable about the book: “sexual graphics, prostitution, child pornography, child abuse, explicit sexual scenes, nudity.” In response to another question about what harm would arise from a student reading it, she wrote that “we are teaching ours [sic] children that you should not have sex before marriage, child abuse and child pornography are bad, and prostitution is degrading but this book promotes what we say are wrong.”

When the review committee finally met on March 16 and decided by a 5-3 vote that Palomar should not be removed from the high school library, the decision likely came as a surprise to many of the players in this saga, who seemed to take the book’s inappropriateness as a given. A small hint of administrators’ reaction came through in the emails, when on the evening of the decision RRHS principal Von Ancken urged vice principal Carver not to “beat yourself up over this. No matter which way it went, it was going to be a controversy anyway.” Carver wrote that she thought the superintendent might still overrule the committee’s recommendation anyway, to which Von Ancken replied: “I hope she does.”

As in previous cases such as Chicago Public Schools’ confused attempt to remove Persepolis from classrooms and libraries, the RRPS emails released to Daniels show administrators woefully unacquainted with their district’s own policies, not to mention basic First Amendment rights. At the very least RRPS should immediately ascertain that all library staff have challenge forms on hand and are familiar with the policy to be followed even (or especially) if the book seems to be “definitely not something we should have.” A review committee just might think differently!

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.

Previous CBLDF coverage of the Palomar challenge:

Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar Challenged in New Mexico High School

CBLDF Rises to Defend Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar

Rio Rancho Public Schools to Observe Challenge Policy for Palomar

Palomar Stays on Shelves in Rio Rancho

Rio Rancho Parent Appeals Palomar Decision

New Mexico TV Station Continues Vendetta Against Palomar

Palomar Back in Rio Rancho Schools–But Restricted