Whether certain books are appropriate for public school libraries has been a topic of discussion in communities around Oklahoma this year. (Wikimedia commons)

When Kyle Reynolds, superintendent of Woodward Public Schools, saw that the book Fahrenheit 451 was on a list of books under review for obscenity by Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor earlier this year, he thought “There’s irony in that.”

Fahrenheit 451, a novel by Ray Bradbury, is about books being outlawed and burned in a futuristic American society. Although the attorney general eventually retracted his intention to evaluate 54 books held by some public school libraries, the announcement still sent ripples throughout the school system of Oklahoma.

Reynolds, who has been worked for the Woodward district for 27 years and has been superintendent for eight, said that certain pieces of literature, including works by his personal hero, Maya Angelou, whose book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was included on the list, “can either reflect the society that it’s in or give us perspective and hindsight for past societies and how things were.”

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

Reynolds said banning books is not necessarily a partisan issue and that books in district schools are reviewed by media specialists.

“My media specialists are all very active in their churches, Southern Baptists, First United Methodist,” he said. “And so I’m pretty confident that their selections and choices for libraries are probably going to be pretty conservative. … I trust mine (media specialists) to make sure that we’ve got appropriate content on our shelves.”

‘It is a committee process’

In Bixby, a suburb of Tulsa, the local public school district received a request last November to remove a book from its libraries. It was the first such request the district had received in more than 10 years. A parent sought to remove two books — 13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews — from the high school’s shelves. These books, which feature some profanity, contain themes that deal with sexuality, death and suicide.

Bixby Public Schools Superintendent Rob Miller said once the request was received, district policy called for a committee review.

“That committee consists of three administrators, two teachers, two parents and a media specialist, who are assigned to read those books and then meet and discuss that complaint and make a decision as to whether or not those books remain on the shelf or should be removed. But it is a committee process,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to keep the two books on the shelves, and the parent appealed to the board of education. A special board meeting took place on Feb. 16 and ended with a vote that kept both books on Bixby’s shelves.

“The parent and the district both had an opportunity to argue on behalf of their points of view, and then the board voted 5–0 for 13 Reasons Why and 3–2 on [Earl and the Dying Girl], to keep both books in circulation,” Miller said.

SB 1142, authored this legislative session by Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman), seeks to prohibit public schools from “having or promoting” certain books.

Specifically, the bill targets “books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child was exposed to it.”

While some opponents have called the an attempt to ban books, Standridge disagreed.

“It is not banning like what is being done to To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Suess and other books. Where protesters actually destroy their ability to publish is banning,” he said. “SB 1142 is about empowering parents to guard their children in one single location, the public school library, while all parents are free to get any sort of book for their child at a public library, bookstore or the internet.”

The bill was advanced by the Senate Education Committee on March 1 and Rep. Justin Humphrey (R-Lane) signed on the next day as the principal House author. The bill has attracted nine co-authors in the Senate, with Sen. Roland Pederson (R-Burlington) being the last to sign on, on March 21.

Despite that apparent support, the bill did not receive a Senate floor hearing by Thursday, the deadline for bills to be heard in their chamber of origin, making it unlikely that the measure will proceed any further this session.