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West Prairie policy change raises ‘scary thought’ about possible book bans

The media center at West Prairie Junior-Senior High School features a display about famous first lines from novels.
Rich Egger
The media center at West Prairie Junior-Senior High School features a display about famous first lines from novels.

A vote by the West Prairie Board of Education is raising concerns about the possibility of book bans in the school district.

The board voted 6-to-1 to approve a state policy about library media programs, but only after striking some language from it. President Scott Vogler cast the only “no” vote.

Districts must approve the policy as written to be eligible for certain grants.

But board member Honey Zimmerman suggested several changes, which included striking a line about complying with rules set by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Zimmerman said she’s concerned about an outside agency such as ISBE telling the district what to do.

High school math teacher Julia Burns found that disappointing.

“I guess I don’t understand what they think ISBE does. Our whole school system in the state is governed by ISBE,” she said.

Burns, who is president of the West Prairie Education Association, also opposed the board’s decision to remove a section about adhering to principles of the American Library Association.

The ALA opposes censorship and book bans, which Burns said could happen now in West Prairie.

“I just think that door is open, and that’s a scary thought,” Burns said

“The language that they’re striking from the footnotes does say that they won’t ban books. They say that’s not their intention, but it’s concerning and I’m really disappointed.”

Burns made her comments to TSPR after the school board meeting.

Public comments during the meeting

At the beginning of the meeting, Burns urged the board to approve the state policy as written.

“You are jeopardizing future library funding by not accepting this. More importantly, you are also sending a message that you don’t trust the teachers – the trained professionals that you hired,” Burns said.

“Is the message you want to send: West Prairie hires incompetent teachers who are not capable of choosing age or reading level appropriate materials for their students? Because that’s what it sounds like.”

West Prairie Junior-Senior High School counselor Michele Aurand also addressed the board. She said the books from the building’s media center help students develop a curiosity about the world around them.

“Books are just one of the ways that our students have to learn about families, cultures, and communities that are different from our own,” Aurand said.

“If you are afraid that books might change a student’s thinking, then you are not afraid of books. You are afraid of thinking.”

High school sophomore Hailie Hendrix told the board that people have differing opinions and beliefs, and she recognizes parents might be concerned about their children reading things that don’t align with their beliefs.

“However, that does not mean that you get to decide what every child in our district gets to read,” she said.

“What you want (your children) to read and what you don’t want them to read is between you and your child. To put your thoughts and beliefs onto a community takes away everyone’s First Amendment right.”

Hendrix said students should be able to read any book they like – with their parents’ blessing – without the school board limiting their options. She said the only access some students have to books comes through their school.

Proceeding with changes

Zimmerman said that she doesn’t want to ban books, but also emphasized several times that the district should not be bound to someone else’s rules.

She also said the district does not qualify for the grants in question because it does not have a school library – it has a media center. She said if that changes, the board can change the policy.

It required more than one meeting for board members to work through the issue. They approved the policy -- after making changes -- on its fifth reading. They rejected the policy in February, but didn’t offer an alternative at that time.

The final vote took place in the junior-senior high school media center in front of a display of famous first lines from novels.

One of those displayed is Fahrenheit 451, a novel that is about censorship and has been subject to censorship.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.