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Degenfelder issues library book guidance: Here’s what’s in it

As local battles in Wyoming reflect a national surge in book controversy, the document is meant to guide districts in shaping their own policies for providing or restricting books.

George Orwell's "1984" on the shelf at the Albany County Public Library. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Wyoming Department of Education released on Wednesday its school district guidance for shaping policies related to library books. It comes as districts are increasingly contending with book challenges from parents concerned about mature or explicit topics. 

Lacking legal teeth, the guidance is intended as a resource rather than a requirement, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said. 

“I must admit that when I first heard about complaints of these graphic sexually explicit materials in books in our schools, I was skeptical,” Degenfelder said at a Capitol press conference. “But I promised Wyoming that I would investigate and address the issue. I did exactly that. And unfortunately, the concerns I heard as I traveled the state were well founded.”

On the campaign trail last year, Degenfelder stressed a local-control bent, telling voters local school districts should make decisions about library material. She re-emphasized that message Wednesday. 

“Nothing in the guidance we have developed bans any book or takes away any local control or forces districts to do anything,” Degenfelder said. 

Drawing upon policies already in place or under consideration in Laramie, Natrona, Park and Teton counties, the guidance includes example policies for definitions and restrictions, model processes for material selection and reconsideration in addition to opt-in or opt-out plans. 

The growing battles over books in Wyoming reflect a national surge in book challenges — which have disproportionately targeted LGBTQ+ content and material that touches on race. Degenfelder, however, said the guidance was “not meant to and does not discriminate with regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Our schools should support all students in their journey toward academic achievement,” she said at the press conference. “Graphic and sexually explicit material in any form does nothing to advance that mission and ultimately distracts from it and costs us the confidence of parents in our state.”

Stakeholders and details 

State education officials turned to people outside the agency to help craft the model policy.

“The cabinet of stakeholders that developed this document started with the premise that it was more important to explain best practices related to policy adoption and include real examples rather than to attempt to prescribe a specific policy template,” the guidance states. 

Degenfelder said cabinet members were selected to represent a wide range of backgrounds, views and geographic points from across the state. 

The 10 members include: Superintendent Jay Curtis, Park County School District No. 1; Maggie Unterseher, New Castle High School librarian; Taylor Jacobs, board member for the State Board of Education and Fremont County School District No. 1; Amber Pollock, former teacher and Casper City Council member; Christy Klaassen, Laramie County School District No. 1 board member; Ashlee Fischer, Gillette parent; Mark Lenhardt, Rock Springs teacher; Kathy Scigliano, Cheyenne parent; Superintendent Mark Broderson, Crook County School District No. 1; and Jeff Wallace, CEO of Wyoming Bank and Trust in Cheyenne. 

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder (courtesy)

Before a district begins any work to establish or modify a library material policy, the guidance recommends the process include formalized stakeholder participation and should include school library professionals, teachers, administrators, legal counsel, parents, students and other community members. 

“Whatever process of selection is used, it is best to ensure that the committee represents all groups, and that an equitable selection process is followed,” the guidance states.

From there, the guidance recommends five key components. “Definitions” comes first and is important for avoiding ambiguity, the guidance says, and likely to be a challenging one for districts to tackle, especially when it comes to terms that are subjective in nature.  

“The definition of ‘sexually explicit’ is a difficult one that we’ve seen … in court cases all the way to the Supreme Court, as we know from Justice Stewart, who famously said, ‘I know it when I see it,’” Degenfelder said. Stewart made the remark after being asked in 1964 for his test for obscenity.

In one example included in the guidance, Laramie County School District No. 1 is considering defining “sexually explicit content” as “textual, visual, or audio materials that depict sexual conduct or describe sexual conduct using more than a passing reference (such as the use of a sex-related expletive) or allusion.”

Next, the guidance offers recommendations for the process of selecting library materials. Generally, it suggests, library professionals rely on professional reviews and recommendations from staff, parents, students and the community. It also recommends districts create a form for patron requests and recommendations. 

At the press conference, WDE provided excerpts from challenged books, while the guidance included a model selection policy from Teton County School District No. 1 that evaluates library materials on the significance of the entire work rather than the individual parts. 

“Materials should be selected for their strengths rather than rejected for their weaknesses,” it states. 

Third, the guidance details how a district might develop a “prohibited content provision.” 

It encourages “a provision that expressly prohibits some of the defined material, such as material that includes sexually explicit content.” A ratings system or process via defined terms could be used, but districts should include stakeholders “in identifying prohibited material.”

In order to empower parents and guardians, the guidance also puts forth a “opt in and/or opt out” policy. The sample language the guidance uses comes from a draft policy Laramie County School District No. 1 is currently considering. It provides four options for parents or guardians to choose when completing the registration process — ranging from no access to sexually explicit materials to no access to any library materials. Consideration of the policy has not gone without controversy. It has drawn silent protests against the restrictions, the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reported, and would contribute to “an atmosphere of distrust and hostility” for teachers and librarians. Supporters say it’s needed to weed out inappropriate materials. 

Lastly, the guidance suggests districts implement a “defined and transparent process for challenging the selection of material.” That could be accomplished, the guidance says, through a stakeholder committee and the use of content ratings and definitions. However, “it is important to ensure that any content ratings used do not include any specific viewpoints on the political or religious aspects of any material.

“Viewpoint discrimination is a violation of the First Amendment, and as such, any policies used must be free of these elements.”

What’s next

The guidance is only the beginning, Degenfelder said at the press conference. Her department plans to update the recommendations as districts create policies. 

“Further, the next step will be to form a stakeholder group of librarians in order to evaluate how to support them through training and resources and to ensure that their district policies are met, and that parents feel involved and understanding of the procurement process,” she said.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.