CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — Over the past few years, the battleground over what kinds of things kids should learn has spread to school board meetings and libraries across the country. Most recently, that's increasingly taken the form of book bans.
Books in both public and school libraries have come under attack by people who think certain subjects don't belong on the shelves. Books have been challenged and banned across the country. Here in the Pacific Northwest, several librarians have quit their jobs because of the controversy.
The American Library Association tracked nearly 1,600 books that were challenged in 2021. That's the highest number since they started tracking bans 20 years ago.
The Oregon Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse said that the same increase is happening here as well. Nearly triple the number of books were challenged in 2022 as they were the year before.
This year, in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, a group of parents is trying to get a set of books banned from the district's libraries. It's made for impassioned debates at recent school board meetings.
The crusade of moms
Tricia Britton homeschools two children, while Kirsten Groener has a son above high school age. They're the moms leading the charge to ban eight books from the West Linn-Wilsonville School District.
"In November, we went and we exposed the eight books by reading the content — passages, as well as sharing graphic photos within the books," said Britton.
"This is porn and not education, or even literacy," Britton said during testimony at the November school board meeting.
"It's just a lot of poetry about rape and getting high and shooting her dad and drugs," another woman testified.
That woman was talking about "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins. Here are the other seven books in question:
- "The Sun and her Flowers" by Rupi Kaur
- "Milk and Honey" by Rupi Kaur
- "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" by Jesse Andrews
- "Beyond Magenta" by Susan Kuklin
- "Heartstopper, Vol. 2" by Alice Oseman
- "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison
- "Flamer" by Mike Curato
Britton and Groener said that they weren't aware of these books until recently, but they started looking for objectionable books at the district after seeing similar moves elsewhere in the country.
"Like I said, this is a national issue that parents have been concerned about across the nation," Britton told KGW, "so there's definitely areas where you can find out about books that have been in question, so I think we just started there."
They've since built up a small army to take on the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board, showing up to meetings and reading explicit passages from the books.
That army is part of the Oregon Moms Union. The group was founded during the pandemic by Mackensey Pulliam, wife of Sandy mayor and Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Stan Pulliam. KGW spoke to Mackensey Pulliam about the Oregon Moms Union and its goals last year.
"I think parents and families have a wide range of religious and personal values, and I think that sometimes they don't always appreciate that. Sometimes it feels like some of the curriculum that's taught is something that they would not prefer for their kids to learn at school," said Pulliam, "or they may prefer to teach it in a way that more so aligns with their values or their religious beliefs."
Since its founding, the Oregon Moms Union has taken on school boards across the state — rallying against COVID-19 restrictions, vaccine mandates, new guidance on supporting transgender students, and now books.
"I honestly feel like parents are frustrated and they liken moms sometimes to mama bears, and I think that there's a reason for that," Pulliam said.
A question of content
Of the eight books that these parents are challenging, six are by or about either people of color or LGBTQ+ people. That aligns with some national trends in books that are being targeted for removal from schools, according to the American Library Association.
However, the West Linn-Wilsonville parents said that it isn't about identity, but explicit content.
"Things that are X-rated, and things that are R-rated, don't belong in an entire district of children," said Britton.
"So you would say you're ok with LGBTQ content in the library, as long as it doesn't cross that sort of sexually-explicit line?" asked KGW producer Ashley Koch.
"I don't know that that's a question that we would need to answer," Groener responded.
In a YouTube video that's since been made private, Groener said that "the act of being gay is a sin."
Parts of the books do contain sexually explicit content that can't be shown on the news. Britton and Groener said that they want to see changes to how school library content is chosen.
"We really have just been asking for policy on having review prior to books being put into the district," said Britton. "We are asking for a committee to be formed with ... parents and administration, as well as we've been asking for these books just to be removed."
Chelsea King chairs the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board, nearing the end of her second 4-year term. She thinks that the books should stay.
"I am unequivocally against removing any books from our public school libraries," King said during a December board meeting.
Having read some of the books, putting the explicit passages into context, she still thinks it's important that kids have access to them.
"The passages that were being read in the board room have two adolescent boys using slang terms for human anatomy and acts of sex," King told KGW. "So they're using slang. And no sex ever occurs in the book."
"The book itself, at the heart of it, is a story of a cross-racial, cross-socioeconomic class friendship, and that really is born out of this young woman who's dying of leukemia, who at the end of the book dies of leukemia," she continued. "Interestingly you know, an issue that we deal with in our own school district, in West Linn-Wilsonville. We've had adolescents die of leukemia. Here's a book for young people who are living through that."
Books on trial
If parents in the district want to block access to any books for their own kids, they can ask the school's librarian not to let their kids check them out. But a block isn't sufficient for Britton and Groener.
"Her friend got it and gave it," one mom testified in November. "So while I have (a rule), I don't want my daughter with this (young adult) book, her friend gave it to her."
Right now, these eight books are up for review. Under school district policy, when a book is challenged, a committee that includes a parent, librarians and other educators and people from the community will evaluate whether the book should stay or go.
Under the review policy, the books stay on school shelves while they're being evaluated.
"We have teacher librarians who make a lot of these decisions in partnership with one another, in partnership with district administration, and following professional standards," said King. "The professional standards come from the American Library Association."
KGW reached out to the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the larger organization. A representative agreed that parents should have the ability to choose which books are appropriate for their own children, but the organization considers blanket book bans to be harmful.
"Collection development is a really rigorous process, and so that's why it's best to have trained school librarians, certified school librarians," said Kathy Lester, president of the American Association of School Librarians. "I think parents do have rights and we do try to work with parents, but again, we try to work with them about what's right for their child, versus them deciding what's right for every single child in the school."
"I'm worried about what it's going to do because there's lots of studies that show that access to a diverse choice of books for students improves student achievement, it builds more of a community and, you know, a community of acceptance in a school," Lester added.
Britton and Groener aren't buying it. They said that the American Library Association supports "seemingly all" controversial books, so it isn't representative of the community.
And not all members of the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board are on the same page.
"I left the Nov. 14 meeting deeply troubled," said vice chair Christy Thompson. "I do not want to be any part of exposing students to sexually explicit, obscene and age-inappropriate reading material."
Students who spoke at the board meeting were in favor of keeping the books.
"After multiple discussions with students at Wilsonville High School, I've come to the conclusion that these books should remain in our libraries," one student testified. "I understand and appreciate the concerns of parents. However, it is not reasonable for parents to choose what other students can and cannot read."
"Yes, many of the books being challenged deal with difficult, difficult topics, some even including sexual assault," another student testified. "But censoring and ignoring them is not the answer. Exposure to difficult topics is the first step."