PORTLAND — After a slight uptick in informal challenges to the content of books found in Portland schools, the Board of Education has updated its policy to be more community focused.

Challenges can now only be made only “from within the community” and will not be accepted from groups outside of Portland or the state, said Meghan Rooks, librarian at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools and one of the school district’s library coordinators.

The district has had only three or four informal challenges and no formal challenges in the five years Rooks has been working in Portland, but the update announced earlier this month was needed, she said.

It comes in the wake of a complaint from a staff member who thought a book a middle school student received through interlibrary loan was too mature for that grade level. In addition, last year, a New Gloucester state representative launched an unsuccessful initiative to ban public schools from disseminating “obscene material.”

When the appropriateness of materials in Portland schools is questioned, based, for example,on  sexual themes, drug use or racial or sexual identity insensitivity, the desired goal is to deal with the challenge through a discussion about why the material is in the district’s collection and how it is used, Rooks said.

Such was the case when the staff member questioned the book the middle school student had received that the staff member “deemed too mature for middle school,” Rooks said.

“The faculty member and I had a conversation about the merits of the book, the concern about the content, and the challenge of middle school libraries meeting the needs of very disparate maturity levels. We arrived at the agreement that the book was too mature for the middle school library, but students still had the right/ability to request it through interlibrary loan,” Rooks said.

Anyone challenging a book available in the school district after an informal discussion can file a formal challenge.

According to the American Library Association, the top five most challenged books in 2019 – “George” by Alex Gino; “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin; “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundoby” by Jill Twiss;Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg;  and “Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack – were challenged due to LGBTQIA+ content. In addition, the Harry Potter series of novels, now more than 20 years old, continues to be frequently challenged because of  its references to magic and witchcraft, the ALA says.

Karen Silverman, chairman of the Intellectual Freedom committee of the Maine School Library Association said challenges “are relatively rare in Maine.”

“Most people understand that schools and libraries have an obligation to provide resources for diverse points of view and a wide variety of purposes,” she said. “While parents certainly have the right to limit what their own children read, they do not have the right to limit what other students read or have access to read.”

Silverman, a librarian at Mount Ararat Middle School, said Portland’s move is the right one.

“At (Maine Association of School Library)’s Fall Forum conference in 2019, we offered a presentation on Intellectual Freedom that emphasized the need to have clear, up-to-date collection policies including how to respond to challenges,” she said. “Hopefully, other districts in the state have also updated or will be updating their collection policies.”




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