Utah school district pulls 52 books after concerns and flagged another 32 for later review

Alpine School District, the largest in the state, says it has temporarily removed the titles from library shelves after parent concerns. Many of the books are about the LGBTQ community.

Alpine School District has pulled 52 books off its library shelves after parents complained that the titles — which largely focus on the LGBTQ community — are inappropriate for children.

As soon as next week, the district’s board members hope to adopt a policy that will guide them in making decisions on whether to return those books or remove them permanently. And after that, there are another 32 the district has flagged to also investigate further.

It is the latest Utah front in a national culture war that has centered on literature and affected several school districts throughout the state, where conservative parents are claiming the books should be banned because they contain pornography.

“We’ve not had a book burning or anything,” said Alpine spokesperson David Stephenson. “But we are being proactive with the ones we’ve heard concerns about.”

Stephenson said the district, which is the largest in the state with 84,000 students, has temporarily removed the books from its school libraries after an internal audit prompted by parent concerns. The books have been placed away from students (who are currently out for summer break) until Alpine can conduct a “review of content.”

Alpine’s school board is drafting a policy to look at the books in question, and once that is in place, the books will formally reviewed.

But several First Amendment advocates are speaking out, saying it is a violation to remove the books before that — especially when many of the titles are about historically marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ community and authors of color. They say it feels like an effort to silence those voices.

“Students have a right to learn about the variety of human experiences and perspectives that these books provide,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression at PEN America, in a statement. The organization defends free expression across the country.

Friedman said 21 of the titles on the Alpine list feature LGBTQ characters or themes.

(PEN America) PEN America created a list of the 52 books removed from shelves in Alpine School District.

The list includes four often-challenged books: “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s journey of self-identity that has some scenes of illustrated figures engaging in sexual conduct; “Lawn Boy,” which is about a gay protagonist and features one scene about a sexual experience he had at a youth group meeting; “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which includes an autobiographical passage detailing an older cousin molesting the author when he was a young boy; and “Out of Darkness” about the relationship between a young Mexican American girl and a Black teenage boy in 1930s Texas.

The book list also includes a collection of poetry, “Milk and Honey,” by Rupi Kaur and a nonfiction title, “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens.”

One of the books on the list seems possibly misidentified simply because of the title. It’s called “SEX: If You’re Scared of the Truth Don’t Read This!” The author argues in favor of abstinence, which is what is taught by law in Utah schools.

The push to ban the books has been driven by members of a conservative parent group here, called Utah Parents United, which applauded the removal on social media this past week — sharing the list of books to pull that has been sent to librarians in the district and calling it “a big win.”

The group has led the efforts in other districts, too, including against nine books in Canyons School District and five in Washington County School District.

Utah Parents United curriculum director Brooke Stephens also filed a police report with both Farmington Police Department and Davis County Sheriff’s Office, according to copies provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, to report a list of 47 books in Davis School District.

She told police the sheriff’s office that the books broke state law because they contained pornography.

That report notes: “She stated that she wanted to make a criminal complaint against the school district and have the issue investigated.”

The efforts by the group have prompted a tug-of-war in the last year between state leaders, anti-censorship advocates and librarians to determine what crosses boundaries in books for youth.

In response, Utah lawmakers passed HB374 this past session that now requires all public K-12 school districts to create a policy to remove books that contain “pornographic or indecent material” from both libraries and classrooms.

The definition of porn, according to Utah law, broadly includes anything that, when taken as a whole, could be considered “harmful to minors” in the representation of nudity or sexual conduct and anything that an average person finds “appeals to prurient interest in sex.”

Stephenson with Alpine District said the policy there will be based on that new law, as well as guidelines newly set out by the Utah State Board of Education and the Utah Attorney General’s Office that are supposed to help districts craft a policy for reviewing challenged books.

Districts are supposed to have their review system set up by Sept. 1, and it should include a committee that reads each questioned book and makes a determination on the value of the title as a whole, instead of just one potentially inappropriate passage. There is supposed to be a balance with the First Amendment and children having a right to check out what materials they want.

The attorney general also noted in his guidance: “While there is no specific law stating that books must be left in the library when facing a challenge, leaving books on the shelves while pending review helps to ensure that schools are not engaging in prior restraint.”

Alpine has chosen not to leave them on the shelves, though. Stephenson said not every library has the books on the list; some have none.

Utah Parents United said it celebrates that decision.

“We can encourage them to make sure they are permanently removed from every school in the district per the law,” another Facebook post added.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group from Utah Parents United tours the State Capitol on Monday, January 10, 2022.

One dad, who has been working with a subgroup called Alpine Parents for Prosperity, also wrote online: “I have been very vocal and very critical. Thank you for listening and protecting our kids. There is still a lot of work to do.”

He believes the decision to remove the books saved the district thousands of dollars in penalties for breaking the law that bans pornography in schools.

Friedman with PEN America, though, challenges Utah Parents United, saying no child has to check the books out if they don’t want to. They are not required reading, he said, but should be available for those who are interested.

Additionally, the examples of sex in the books on the list, including “Gender Queer,” aren’t about titillation, Richard Price, a professor an associate professor of political science at Weber State University who tracks censorship in school districts, has previously said.

They are about relationship imbalances and manipulation — often real experiences from the authors that are meant to show the reader how the situation is wrong and warn them if they are going through something similar.

“It’s about figuring our where your boundaries are and drawing them. That’s very healthy,” Price said.