District official ordered book removed
A School District 51 official ordered school librarians to remove a controversial book from circulation last month, a move that circumvented the district’s traditional process for reviewing such materials and raised concerns about censorship.
“Due to recent events and media attention on the Netflix movie 13 Reasons Why, I am going to have this book temporarily removed from any kind of check out,” wrote Leigh Grasso, the district’s executive director of academic achievement and growth, in an email sent to librarians on April 28.
The order to remove the book “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which was the basis for the Netflix series, from circulation came even though no official challenges to the book were received. It was reversed later the same day after librarians urged administrators to follow the district’s process for considering challenged materials.
Grasso’s order came after at least seven district students have killed themselves since the beginning of the school year, most recently affecting Fruita Monument and Palisade high schools. According to emails obtained by The Daily Sentinel through a Colorado Open Records Act request, Grasso instructed the district’s cataloguing specialist to tell school librarians who had the book in their school libraries to remove it from circulation, which was met with opposition. Some of the librarians responded that they didn’t feel the action was appropriate, and they cited differences between the Netflix series and the book in their responses.
“There is a formal, board approved process to challenge books in our district, and I believe it is our duty to follow that process, because censorship is a slippery slope,” wrote one high school librarian, who also noted that the book has been popular since it was published in 2007 and many students had already read it long before the Netflix series debuted.
Ten school libraries had the physical book, while students at other schools had access to the eBook and audiobook through the digital catalogue. Only one copy of the book was available for checkout at the time the order was issued, according to the cataloguing specialist’s emails.
The Netflix series, released last month, depicts graphic scenes, and the plot centers on a girl who details the reasons why she decided to end her life in recordings she left behind explaining how everyone treated her badly. District 51 sent a letter to parents after the series was released advising them of its existence and providing tips on how to talk with children who watched the show.
“I would strongly urge the administration of the district to follow the board approved policies,” a middle school librarian wrote, urging them to follow a transparent process. “Once we start pulling and censoring books for all students as a reactive measure there is no line to which we follow.”
Librarians also cited the book’s value as the starter to conversations about the difficult topic, and how it helped teachers and students open a line of communication to discuss suicide.
“The novel itself was written as a suicide prevention awareness novel,” a librarian wrote, asking the district to reconsider censoring the award-winning novel.
District spokeswoman Emily Shockley said no official complaint had been received about the availability of the book, and that was one of the reasons administrators changed their minds about temporarily making it unavailable to students. The decision to temporarily remove the book from circulation was out of “an overabundance of caution,” given recent events, she said.
The district’s official policy directs administrators to accept official written complaints that state the grounds for the protest against the materials. They are also directed to use a checklist to evaluate and discuss the materials in question with the complainant. If the complaint isn’t resolved at the building level, the process involves a district-level review panel charged with examining the merits of the complaint and the materials. Eventually, the school board can also be consulted if the complainant is dissatisfied with the review panel’s decision.
The decision to reverse the order came after administrators received input from librarians and the district’s crisis team, Shockley said. District officials told librarians they decided to gather feedback from local mental-health experts on how to best support students with the topics of suicide and depression instead of removing the book.
A letter to parents of Redlands Middle School students dated May 1 noted that the book had been removed from the school library and classroom libraries. The letter also advised parents to monitor their children’s social media activity, as a staff was aware of a game teens were playing called “13 Reasons Why.” In the game, children identify others who make them want to consider suicide.
“A great parenting practice is to monitor your child’s online and social media activity — this is one part of their life that should be totally transparent to you,” the letter said.
The copies of the book at Redlands Middle School have been reinstated, according to Shockley.