A Utah school district will update its book policy after ‘lessons learned’ from Bible ban

Davis School District said it will make the process with book challenges faster and more transparent.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) People gather at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on June 7, 2023, to protest after Davis School District removed the Bible from elementary and middle schools. The district later reversed the decision; it has now updated its policy for banning books.

After the controversy it faced around banning the Bible, Davis School District is now revising its policy to handle future book challenges.

“We have had some lessons learned,” said Logan Toone, an assistant superintendent for the northern Utah district.

Toone this week presented recommendations for changes to the process, based on that bad experience with the Good Bookwhich was ultimately returned to library shelves. And members of the Davis Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to approve those updates.

Moving forward, their hope is that reviewing challenged books will be faster and more transparent in the district. The committees chosen to look at the titles will be trained and armed with clearer definitions of what is or isn’t age appropriate for students.

Davis first drew national attention in March, after a parent said the Bible should be removed for containing scenes of incest, bestiality and rape in the King James edition. The parent was frustrated by other book removals under a state law passed in 2022; that measure was pushed by conservative groups that have largely been targeting works about the LGBTQ+ community.

(Andrew Harnik | Associated Press) A Bible is seen on a chair in the House chamber in Washington, Jan. 6, 2023. The Bible will return to the shelves in a northern Utah school district that provoked an outcry after it banned them from middle and elementary schools. The Davis School District said in a statement on Tuesday, June 20, that its board had determined the sacred text was age-appropriate for all school libraries.

A review committee found the religious text did not violate the law by containing “pornographic or indecent” materials, but decided it contained “vulgarity or violence” and should only be accessible for high schoolers.

That determination was swiftly met by 70 appeals filed by parents and community members challenging the restriction. Republican state lawmakers called the decision “embarrassing,” “reprehensible” and a move toward “accepting the religion of atheism and hedonism.” Shortly after, the district’s school board voted to reverse the Bible ban. But the criticisms of its process have lingered.

To address concerns, here’s a breakdown of the five biggest changes Davis School District will make for book reviews going forward:

1. Every book challenged will be initially reviewed by one standing committee.

The district has decided to create what it’s calling a “specialized” review committee that will consist of seven members — a mix of parents and school staff — who serve for at least one school year.

Every complaint will first go to that group. Members will decide whether any part of the text violates the “bright line” rule against “pornographic or indecent” materials, which would mean the book would need to be removed immediately from all schools under the law.

Members will receive specific training, Toone said, on what “bright line” violations look like; those training materials will also be posted publicly on the district’s website. The group will have 30 days to make a decision.

If they find that a title does not contain a clear violation, committee members can dismiss the complaint or send it to a “standard” review committee. That group will decide whether access to it should be limited, based on the less strict standards of age appropriateness.

Previously, the district had multiple committees operating at the same time, taking on book challenges as they were filed. Those committees would review for both “bright line” violations and age appropriateness, Toone said, which slowed down the process as groups became confused between the different standards in the law and backlogs grew.

There will be multiple “standard” review committees, each a mix of seven parents and school staff. Their members will be required to read a book as a whole before making a determination.

2. What is ‘age appropriate’ will be clearly defined.

A lot of the uproar over the Bible decision came from the review committee’s determination that the text contained content that wasn’t appropriate for elementary or middle school students.

That part of Davis’ policy was based on a model policy provided by the state, but Toone said the standard in it for “vulgarity or violence” was vague.

Moving forward, the standard review committees will receive training and clear guidelines on what to look for that might be sensitive or inappropriate.

Their charge, under the new policy, is to consider whether the text has “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors” when taken in its entirety. They can also weigh the timeliness of the material, the quality and how its been reviewed from “objective sources.” And they should think about “community standards” and student age.

That language comes from the Utah Attorney General’s Office. “It will give clear guidance to committees,” Toone said.

3. Books can now be designated as requiring parent permission to check out.

Rather than only having two options — to remove a book or retain it based on grade levels — the standard review committees will now have a third option for books that they see a value in, but also see some issues of concern.

They can designate them as requiring parent permission. The book would remain in the school’s library, Toone said, but parents would have to give written permission to a school librarian for their child to be able to check the book out.

Toone said other districts have this option, and Davis board members were interested in something similar to keep more books available to kids.

4. There are new rules around appeals.

Appeals of “bright line” decisions can be made while those immediately removed books remain off library shelves.

Books sent to a standard committee will remain available, even if the committee suggests restrictions, until there’s been time for appeals to be filed and heard, under the new Davis policy.

The idea is that no decision on age appropriateness is implemented before the chance to appeal.

Davis came under fire previously when it removed the Bible from elementary and middle schools before the appeal process had been carried out.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Davis School District Board of Education appointed Dr. Daniel R. Linford as the new superintendent Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

Now, after a standard committee’s decision is posted, there will be a 15-day appeal period before any access changes.

If someone objects within that period, their appeal must be heard and voted on by the full Davis Board of Education before any action is taken with the book. The district said it intends for all appeals to be heard and processed within 60 days following the posting of a committee decision.

After appeals have been weighed, a decision by a standard committee will stand for three years.

Additionally, individuals in the community will be limited to two appeals per school year.

5. The names of book challengers and committee members will be private. But decisions on books will be more transparent.

The new policy protects the identities of community members who submit book complaints and individuals who serve on review committees. All of those names will remain private.

Toone said that protection provides safety, with book bans facing heated national debate.

But both the specialized and standard review committees will be required to provide an anonymous “statement of rationale” for their decision with each book, along with a vote tally. That will be publicly posted on the district’s website.

“We’ve received requests from some community members,” Toone said, “seeking clarity on those decisions that are made.”

What happened with the Book of Mormon challenge, and what’s next?

At the end of the previous school year, the district received two requests for review of the Book of Mormon, the seminal text for members of Utah’s dominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Davis spokesperson Chris Williams said in an email this week that the district had been waiting for the policy updates before moving forward with that review. The challengers say the text contains physical and sexual violence.

Read the document about Davis book review changes here:

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