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Laurel school board flags six books for review as book ban trend spikes nationwide

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Posted at 6:50 PM, Jan 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 11:25:04-05

BILLINGS — Book bans in K-12 public schools are increasing in frequency across the country, including in Montana.

On Monday evening, the Laurel school board is scheduled to hear a presentation from the district on the process of buying and placing books in school libraries. This comes after the board recently questioned if six specific titles found in the high school library are appropriate for teen students.

One of the books, "Assassination Classroom Vol. 4" by Yusei Matsui, is a part of a manga series that was also recently challenged and reviewed by Billings School District 2 following a complaint from a parent.

The other five titles all relate to the LGBTQ+ community and some have multi-cultural themes. The five titles include: "The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School" by Sonora Reyes, "Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American" by Laura Gao, "Nothing Burns as Bright as You" by Ashley Woodfolk, "A Million Quiet Revolutions" by Robin Gow, and "Crumbs" by Danie Stirling.

The superintendent of Laurel schools says the action Monday night is largely explanatory, walking board members through the process of purchasing books and deciding what ages and grade levels they might fit.

"Assassination Classroom Vol.1" was challenged by a parent in the Billings school district for being too violent. Ultimately a review committee assembled by the district found no reason to pull it from the library.

"Our committee found that there was not sufficient evidence to override librarians, who are experts at what they do," said Emily Romrell, one of the five members of the committee.

Romrell is a parent and Billings-based author who specializes in mass shooting research.

"I wrote a children's book to help parents talk to their children about lockdown drills because as a parent of a kindergartener, I really struggled with that," Romrell said. "I was really interested when I heard they were challenging a book because I had never once read of banning a book as a way to keep schools safe."

What books are in front of young readers, especially teens, has triggered a heated debate nationwide with requests for school boards and libraries to review and potentially ban certain books increasing in recent years.

PEN America, a non-profit writers association, tracks the number of books being pulled from shelves and found 3,362 instances of books being banned in K-12 public schools in the 2022-23 school year, which is a 33% increase from the year before. More than 40% of all book bans occurred in school districts in Florida. Other states topping the list of book bans in school districts include Texas, Missouri, Utah and Pennsylvania.

While PEN America's list did not include Montana, book challenges have occurred in Billings for years.

Billings Public Library Director Gavin Woltjer says the library has received four formal challenges in his seven years leading the library. Nothing was ultimately removed from the facility or the collection as a whole. Woltjer says he actually sees challenges and reviews of materials as healthy.

"Book challenges are a great way to keep a conversation and transparency about a collection, about interests, about reading habits, about the profession as a whole within a library organization," Woltjer said.

But Woltjer says the value of this changes when it comes to actually banning books.

“You don't like Book X, so we pull Book X, but I know you like Book Y, so I asked for Book Y do you pull?...where does that end?" Woltjer said.