Mat-Su book review committee concludes, some books returned to shelves

A picture of the Mat-Su Borough School District Center
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District office located in Palmer Alaska. May 30, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

A citizen’s committee charged with reviewing challenged books for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has completed its work. The committee reviewed 35 books over the last year and voted to permanently remove 19 from school libraries. A lawsuit over the removed books is ongoing, and is set to go to trial next year.

The Mat-Su School Board has not taken action on all committee recommendations, but has voted to remove seven so far.

In the spring of 2023, Mat-Su residents raised questions to school board members about whether certain library books violated obscenity statutes. The 56 challenged books were pulled from shelves last spring while the committee conducted its review.

District officials said the volume of book challenges overwhelmed the existing review process, and the school board picked members for a new committee to review the books. Prior to the formation of the citizen’s committee, the review process called for the person who challenged the book to meet with the librarian and principal at the school, and could escalate to review by a six-person committee, all while the book remained in circulation.

At a June school board meeting, Superintendent Randy Trani said the district has worked to streamline their book review process and the citizens committee is no longer needed.

“If a person, say a parent, has a concern about a book, it’s not a process that takes months and months and months, that it’s much more streamlined. So we’re trying to make an effort so we don’t end up in this situation again,” Trani said.

The board’s current policy on public complaints concerning instructional materials says that complaints about books brought to the school board will be determined by the superintendent or the superintendent’s designee, and can be appealed to the school board.

At the committee’s final meeting last month, members voted to remove three out of the four books they reviewed, including Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and a graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The committee voted to retain Perfect by Ellen Hopkins at high schools only.

The Northern Justice Project and American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska sued the district last November on behalf of six students and two parents, claiming that the books should have remained on shelves while the review took place. Although 28 books have been returned to shelves, Savannah Fletcher with the Northern Justice Project said the eight plaintiffs are still seeking damages from the district.

“First of all, there are still the books that were fully banned. So now that they have been reviewed, they have been banned, and we have not yet determined as a team which of those we agree with,” Fletcher said. “There are a couple of we’ve already stated we were not disputing, but not all of them necessarily, do we think we’re properly banned outright.”

Another 15 challenged books are no longer in the district’s collection, and the committee did not review two books that will be left to the district administration to determine if they will be removed. The school board is expected to vote on the committee’s final recommendations at their next meeting on Aug. 7.

a portrait of a man outside

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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