Terry Hutchinson: Schools have a responsibility to ensure age-appropriate materials

Debate over books in school libraries reminds us all of a responsibility schools have always had.

My name is Terry Hutchinson. I am one of seven elected members of the Board of Education for Washington County, Utah. I am responding to the Jan. 28 Salt Lake Tribune commentary from Ashley Hope Perez and Harvey J. Graff (“Book ban in Washington County is an example of the ‘new illiteracy’”). I am writing in my individual capacity.

For almost three decades, I have done a daily book review program on the radio in St. George, where I promote books, reading and education. I served on the Washington County Library Board for eight years, where we passed a bond issue doubling our library sizes from 1993-2001. I am all for books and literacy. Bans are not something I support. I do, however, support responsible reading for children and younger readers.

I will not address the conduct of our actions on the books in question, two books that were removed from our school libraries, but suffice it to say the actions stand for themselves. The Washington County School District has had policies regarding acquisition, use and challenge of instructional materials for many years. These policies assist our obligation to provide educational materials and ensuring those materials are not in violation of state law or community standards. As required, these policies were made available for public comment for at least 30 days prior to their enactment and followed the democratic process. Any changes will follow the same procedure and will continue to prioritize education for the students as well as emphasize their well-being and safety.

Perez (and the reporting media) fail to give proper weight to one policy requirement, “The subject matter, reading level, and the maturity level of the material is appropriate for the student using the material.”

We are dealing with students from 5 to 18 years old. We wouldn’t put film representations of violence, gore or sex in our schools; yet we are being asked to stock our school libraries with written media (or graphic novels) what we would not tolerate in movies. The acknowledgment of the changing age and maturity levels of students throughout their time in the public education system cannot be overlooked.

Perez says “Effective leadership calls for consistent focus on students even when there are outrageous demands from a very few parents. It calls for always centering decisions on students’ rights and their realities–and the needs of our inclusive public.”

Any reasonable definition of student rights, however, needs to acknowledge that the students’ rights are and should be determined in association with their parents. Parents are the ones who have the legal duty to make these decisions. In our schools, we work with their parents to ensure the best outcomes regardless of the issue, whether it is academic or personal. It is the height of irresponsibility and an abandonment of our public duty to leave parents out of those decisions. They have primary legal and moral responsibility for their children until those children are of legal age.

We, in the Washington County School District, have always welcomed parent participation at every level. Parents rightfully are participating in their children’s education and training. We are currently looking into ways to use technology to notify parents of all material their students check out from our libraries.

Perez is right in one regard. We have a need for our public discourse and our educational experience to be more inclusive. Perez, and others, in their admirable attempts to help young readers understand under-represented or publicized groups, have often not kept in mind the age and circumstances of their proposed audience.

Utah law (and that of many other states) prohibits certain types of acts of a sexual nature being presented to minors. For too long, works that may be in violation of this law have been creeping into our public libraries and school libraries. For this reason, public school libraries have an obligation to be closely curated for appropriate age level material — regardless of subject matter. History, math, science, social studies and everything else is not meaningful unless the student can process it in a context they can understand at their age.

This debate isn’t about diversity. The education should provide for broadening the knowledge of the students. The debate is and should be about responsibility — to ensure that age appropriate materials are being provided. For too long, that responsibility has lain dormant, but there’s a renewed awareness on the part of parents, and other decision makers.

I invite Perez, and other authors, to take this into account and add their important subject matter and voices to the conversation at an age appropriate level. It would be welcomed.

Terry Hutchinson | Washington County School Board

Terry Hutchinson has served on the Washington County School Board since 2017. He is an attorney, has produced a daily book review program on the radio in St. George since 1994 and is formerly the chair of the Washington County Library Board.