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Community members challenging the presence of L.C. Rosen’s young adult novel, “Jack of Hearts (and other parts),” at Mayfield High School’s library have a second opportunity to press their complaint, as the outcome of a special meeting of the Las Cruces school board on Jan. 30.
The board found that the wrong process for considering the complaint had been followed from the beginning. Instead of following a 2008 policy for challenges to elective library materials (such as books that are not assigned as required reading for courses), the district had initiated a process pertaining to a 2010 policy focused on challenges to curricular materials.
Moreover, the district’s legal counsel, Elena Gallegos, advised the board that the regulations enforcing those policies were out of date and might not adequately fulfill the policies’ objectives or preserve the rights of union employees.
Sarah Smith and Juan Garcia challenged the book’s inclusion in the library’s collection last August, calling its frank discussions of the gay protagonist’s sexuality and the book’s use of profanity inappropriate for students.
A review committee formed in response to their complaint voted in October to keep the book on the shelf. However, Smith and Garcia were back on Jan. 5 with a fresh complaint accusing school board members of “stacking” the committee to achieve a preferred outcome.
At the special meeting, the two asked that the review committee be vacated and replaced with a new committee comprising members “randomly chosen to represent the overall community, not just one specific viewpoint,” in Garcia’s words.
They presented the board with examples of emails and text messages, obtained through public records requests, purporting to reveal bias in the selection of committee members. Among these was an exchange of text messages between school board member Patrick Nolan and Lucas Herndon, a member of the review committee, in which Nolan comments, “Committee should be pretty stacked with anti book banners.”
Garcia and Smith argued that the integrity of the process had been undercut by what Garcia called “disdain towards ordinary citizens who don’t share his views.”
Smith also took issue with Nolan’s email request to a Mayfield High School librarian seeking suggestions for review committee candidates, presuming that the librarian would be sympathetic to the book. Giving her a say in who was on the committee, Smith said, “was the equivalent of allowing the defendant in a trial to choose the jury members.”
Nolan and his school board colleagues have been the target of scathing criticism and accusations during public comments at board meetings where board members do not, as a rule, respond.
The meeting agenda focused on the policies at issue, rather than accusations about the school board members. However, board president Teresa Tenorio offered any board member who had been individually accused a chance to respond, provided they recused themselves from the rest of the board’s discussion and votes for that meeting.
Nolan and fellow board member Robert Wofford then recused themselves and took seats among members of the public. Nolan addressed the board, saying he agreed with the complainants that the current policy was “broken,” but that he did not believe he had violated it. He did not address his text message to Herndon directly, but said that he had recommended 16 people who responded to his calls for volunteers through social media and word of mouth, including parents or guardians with children in the school district or staff members. He also rejected claims that reaching out to Mayfield library staff was an effort to tilt the scales, saying he did not know at the time what role library staff would play in the process.
Nolan also pointed out that complaints voiced about “activists” being recommended for the panel appeared to center on individuals whose social media accounts merely included expressions of support for LGTBQ citizens.
Wofford picked up on that theme in his own comments to the board, saying, “The package of information that (Garcia and Smith) gave us for tonight’s hearing included several people’s Facebook pages on which LGBTQ support was identified by having pride colors or something there… That was clearly a factor in their minds for why people cannot be objective.”
Gallegos made an extended presentation to the board outlining problems with the process beginning with the very form used to submit the complaint: A form initiating the policy for challenging curricular materials (Policy KEF) rather than “elective” materials such as books students might check out for their own interests (which are treated by Policy KEC).
As one example of the difference: Parents and guardians have a right to request an alternative assignment for their child if they objective to an item in the curriculum. When it comes to a book in the library, however, district policy provides a right to question books yet states: “at no time will the wishes of one child’s parents to restrict his/her reading or viewing of a particular item infringe on other parents’ rights to permit their children to read or view the same material.”
Board members recruiting review committee members in a regulated timeframe had been confused by Policy KEF’s requirement that staff members have expertise in the subject area at hand. On the spot, board members did not see how that applied to a work of fiction that wasn’t assigned reading.
Gallegos walked through the language of each policy to demonstrate how they respectively balanced the rights of students, parents and guardians, community members at large and district employees when a book or other material is challenged.
She also pointed out that under policy KEC, removing a book required the assent of the superintendent and the school board as well as the review committee. Complainants also have a right to appeal that decision. The committee of eight would be chaired by a non-voting K-12 library specialist, and voting members would include the principal of the school where the complaint originated or a designated substitute; three randomly selected teachers at that school; and three randomly selected parents or guardians whose children attend the school. This was not the process followed.
Moreover, Gallegos wondered if following that process would conflict with the collective bargaining agreement, pertaining to assigning employees to committees not covered in the bargaining agreement, though she said she had not discussed that with represented of NEA-Las Cruces, the union. It was one of several points Gallegos recommended be covered in a review and update of district regulations.
Board members Tenorio, Ed Frank and Pamela Cort proceeded briskly with a series of votes, all unanimous.
The first was to direct Superintendent Ignacio Ruiz to revise regulations enforcing policies KEF and KEC, to include the process of choosing advisory committee members; they next directed him to see that revised regulations also comply with the collective bargaining agreement; and that the regulations be aligned with each other except to extent needed to fulfill the intent of the two different policies.
The board gave the administration until Feb. 14 to develop and published revised regulations, a time frame Ruiz said was achievable, although the board also allowed the district to take an additional five days if required.
The board then voted unanimously to disband the current review committee, with Frank commenting, “We need to erase the board and have a clean slate.” The three signaled agreement that if Smith and/or Garcia choose to file their complaint again, they deserved to be heard under the appropriate procedure.