The classic — and frequently challenged — sex ed book It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris has reportedly been removed from an elementary school library in Rainier, Oregon, and the librarian who included it in the collection has been disciplined by school administrators despite the book’s presence on a statewide list of approved materials. Moreover, the ban apparently is not limited to one title, as the school’s principal assured parents that “all questionable books have been pulled from library shelves.”
It’s Perfectly Normal, which is recommended for ages 10 and up, takes an honest but age-appropriate look at sexuality. The illustrations by Michael Emberley depict people of all ages, races, body types, and sexual orientations, and Harris’s accompanying text addresses common questions on topics ranging from masturbation to STDs. First published in 1994, the book received starred reviews from five major review sources, including Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. It was also included on best-of-the-year lists from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the American Library Association.
According to the Rainier School District’s official version of events, sixth-grade students at Hudson Park Elementary School had looked at copies of It’s Perfectly Normal during a class session in the library, with their teacher’s approval. All parties agree that a subsequent class of fourth graders (generally 9-10 years old) also read the book, but the school district claims the copies were left out by accident, while both supporters and detractors of the librarian say the books were deliberately shared with the fourth grade class. A parent who regularly volunteers in the library commented on local news station KPTV’s article with her account of events:
Our librarian did nothing wrong. She was asked to buy the material and sent the list for review first. Our district wasn’t prepared for Sex Ed classes coming up and didn’t give employees guidelines for books, didn’t tell them to get permission slips. Our librarian used common sense and never let the books hit the shelves. She kept them behind desk, offering them to [the] 3 older grades only, and talked to teachers first. The discipline was for letting 4th graders look at books AFTER talking to the teacher.
Regardless of who saw the book when and why, the district seems to agree that the librarian followed proper procedures in adding it to the collection in the first place. In that case, there is a challenge policy which should have been followed before the book could be removed from the library. Rainier School District Policy IIA-AR, Section 2 (Objections to Instructional Materials) includes multiple levels of review and can be summarized as follows:
- The school employee who receives the initial complaint, whether it be a librarian, teacher, or administrator, is to first “try to resolve the issue informally,” without requiring the parent or other complainant to submit a written challenge form. Crucially, the policy clearly states at this point that “the [challenged] materials shall remain in use unless removed through the procedure in Section 3. f. 3. of this regulation,” e.g. after passing through all levels of review up to the school board.
- If the matter is not resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction, they can then meet with “someone designated by the principal.” If they’re still not satisfied after that meeting, then they are asked to submit a written challenge (“Reconsideration Request Form” attached to the policy document) in preparation for a review committee to consider the complaint.
- The review committee is to include one teacher, one librarian, one administrator, five community members appointed by the school board, and one student appointed by the student council. Committee members review the complaint, hear directly from the complainant, and read the challenged material as well as “reputable, professionally prepared reviews of the material.” The committee votes by secret ballot to either leave the material in place, remove some or all of it, or restrict its use. Another crucial phrase found in the policy at this juncture: “The sole criteria for the final decision is the appropriateness of the material for its intended educational use.”
- If the complainant disagrees with the committee’s decision, they may appeal it to the school board which will make a final judgment on the matter in open session.
Instead of following this policy, which is designed to ensure that books are not rashly removed from libraries and classrooms, Hudson Park principal Heidi Blakley said in a letter to parents that “inappropriate human development and sexuality books were disseminated to students who had library [class],” but that “all questionable books have been pulled from the library shelves.” According to the parent library volunteer commenting on KPTV’s article, administrators have now removed not just It’s Perfectly Normal but “all ‘body books,’ including those that discuss growing girls and menstruation with no mention of sex, and [are] in the process of collecting books that honor GLBQT youth and families.” The librarian has refused to participate in the purge, added the parent.
The librarian herself, Alison Leigh Dale-Moore, also commented on the local news story. While trying to remain above the fray, she noted that she is in contact with ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and her union representative. She finished by telling detractors that “I abide by The American Library Association Code of Ethics. Look it up.” CBLDF stands with Dale-Moore and urges the Rainier School Board to invoke the challenge procedure, which has evidently been ignored by school and district administrators. This fight is far from over!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.