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Park City School Board challenges the constitutionality of state book ban policy

Park City School District

Tuesday's Park City School Board meeting drew a crowd of parents and teachers commenting on a new state policy that would establish a process for banning books in the classroom.

It was a standing room only. A half dozen people gave public comments opposing the policy that would allow parents to use a process to eliminate books and materials from school curriculums.

Park City School District policy 9051 outlines the path parents, teachers, or students could take to challenge the district's use of sensitive materials as defined by HB 374, a law that took effect in May.

Under HB 374, the legislature defines sensitive teaching materials and prohibits using them in Utah's public schools. It requires the state board of education to provide training to school districts on identifying sensitive materials. HB 374 now requires parent complaints made to school districts to be reported to the legislative committee overseeing education and to the Government Operations Interim Committee.

Everyone who spoke during Tuesday's public input was opposed to the school board adopting policy 9051.

Park City High School Teacher Melissa Nikolai said the stories worth reading are ones with broad characters who struggle with life's indignations, outrage, and judgments. She said students reflect on their own place in the world through the characters' struggles and failures.

"To have these discussions, it's one of the greatest pleasures of being a teacher," Nikolai said. "This is the purpose of great literature, to develop more empathetic human beings. For what are we as a society if we have no empathy for each other? You shortchange your student's potential as a fully complex human when you limit their ability to read great books together."

Nikolai said she will always respond to parents' concerns.

"If books scare you, if you don't want your students exposed to reflection and deeper thinking, then I can and will always offer an alternative," Nikolai said. "Is it fair though, to insist that the book is banned for every student?"

Parent Cathy Lanigan asked the board to trust the teacher's judgment in selecting learning materials. She said literature used in teaching should represent the broadest possible perspectives of characters and social ideas.

"We've all heard the argument that teachers should just stick to the classics," Lanigan said. "Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, all of which have been challenged. So, which classics will meet every parent's approval? I humbly submit that unless you are discussing Dick and Jane, you will make someone uncomfortable. Lastly, it goes without saying that every parent has the right to question, investigate and filter what their own children have access to. That right does not extend to other people's children."

Student Zoe Otto told the board the books they read and discuss are essential for students preparing for the world after high school.

"I just wanted to say that books have changed my life. I think all of us have a book that has opened our eyes that no movie or show or whatever could change how we look at the world," Otto said. "I think for us to decide to ban books is really heartbreaking because we need to have controversy and be exposed to that. Then you have to have mature discussions about things."

After hearing the public speak out against adopting a policy that could result in banning books, the board held an open discussion about alternatives to adopting policy 9051. After a closed session with attorney Mark Moffat, the board voted unanimously to send 9051 back to the district’s policy committee.

Board President Erin Grady issued a statement that said that the changes to the existing policy 9050 adopted earlier in the meeting provides parents with processes to challenge sensitive materials used in schools.

She said that based on the input from the public, they've decided to review the verbiage and constitutionality of policy 9051.

There were no public comments made supporting the adoption of policy 9051.

The school district must adopt a policy complying with HB 374 by October 1. The school board will meet in a special session on Friday at 8:30 a.m. at the district office on Kearns Boulevard.

KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.