Roles and Responsibilities

A. School Officials, Boards and State Mandates
The school board’s role is to define an educational philosophy that serves the needs of all its students and reflects community goals. In this process, most districts see a role for parents and other community members. Educational advisory boards can also assist educators in discerning the needs and perspectives of the community. Open school board meetings can keep the public informed about the school district’s educational philosophy and goals, encourage comments, questions and participation, and increase community support for the schools. Although public debate about the educational system provides opportunities for community input and can assist educators in developing materials to meet students’ needs and concerns, actual curriculum development and selection are tasks uniquely suited to the skills and training of professional educators.

While curriculum development relies heavily on the professional expertise of trained educators, it is also controlled by state education law and policy. Educators’ choices are influenced by factors such as competency standards, graduation requirements, standardized testing, and other educational decisions made at the state level.

B. Principles Governing Selection and Retention of Materials in Schools
Sound curriculum development requires that educators with professional expertise decide which materials are educationally appropriate, consistent with the school district’s educational philosophy and goals and state education law. School officials also have the constitutional duty to ensure that curriculum development and selection decisions are not made with the aim of advancing any particular ideological, political, or religious viewpoint.

Many professional educational organizations, and individual school systems, have articulated the principles that should ideally govern selection and retention of materials in schools, and these statements and policies uniformly emphasize reliance on the expertise of professional educators in developing materials that will best serve the needs of students. NEA Resolutions state that

quality teaching depends on the freedom to select materials and techniques. Teachers and librarians/media specialists must have the right to select instructional material/library materials without censorship or legislative interference

Similarly, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) policy on textbook selection emphasizes that its "first commitment" is "preservation of the student’s right to learn in an atmosphere of academic freedom," and that "[s]election of materials will be made by professional personnel through reading, listening, viewing, careful examination, the use of reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared selection aids…." The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association advise selecting curricular materials that
1) have a clear connection to established educational objectives, and
2) address the needs of the students for whom they are intended.

Significantly, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) cautions that

professional judgment must not be completely subservient to the popular will. Educators’ primary allegiance must be to the integrity of knowledge and the welfare of students…. materials must never be removed or restricted for the purpose of suppressing ideas.

Policies governing school libraries and classroom resource materials reflect the priority placed on inclusion of a wider range of materials, because of the libraries’ traditional role to offer choices for all readers. The American Library Association Library Bill of Rights, first adopted in 1948, recognizes the library’s essential role in providing resources to serve the "interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community." With minor modifications, these principles also apply in the school setting.

The considerations specifically relevant to school libraries are identified by NSBA guidelines:

  • To provide materials that will enrich and support the school’s curricula…
  • To provide materials that will stimulate knowledge, growth, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, ethical standards, and leisure-time reading;
  • To provide information to help students make intelligent judgments;
  • To provide information on opposing sides of controversial issues so that students may develop the practice of critical reading and thinking; and
  •  To provide materials representative of the many religious, ethnic, and cultural groups that have contributed to the American heritage.

As is true with curricular materials, the ALA cautions that library materials "should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."

C. Complaint Procedures
Many school districts adopt formal policies and procedures for responding to complaints about materials, and for good reason. They simplify the functioning of the schools by clarifying how complaint processes work; help faculty, staff, and administration fulfill their legal obligations; let parents and students know what criteria are used for removing materials and how they are applied; provide opportunities to understand more about community perspectives and values; and protect the academic freedom of teachers.

When materials are challenged, schools with well-articulated processes for handling complaints and reviews are more likely to resist censorship pressures than districts that lack such guidelines. Having policies in place, and following them scrupulously, ensures that complainants will receive due process, and that challenged materials will be judged on educational merits rather than personal opinion. It is important for teachers and administrators to be familiar with these policies and understand their significant function. Armed with this knowledge, schools officials are less likely to submit to pressure or react with unilateral decisions to remove books.

Different school systems implement complaint procedures in different ways, but most provide that:

  • Complaints must be made in writing;
  • Complainants should identify themselves both by name/address, and by their interest in the material (i.e., as a parent, student, religious leader, etc.);
  • Complainants must have read/seen the entire work objected to;
  • The complaint must be specific about the reasons for the objection;
  • Complaints should request a specific remedy (i.e., an alternative assignment for an individual, or removal/exclusion affecting the entire school community); and
  • Complaints, standing alone, will not be considered grounds for disciplining teachers or librarians.

It is advisable for policies to contain a statement supporting intellectual and academic freedom, and an explanation of the importance of exposing students to a wide variety of material and information, some of which may be considered "controversial." Policies should also clearly indicate that certain kinds of objections do not provide a legally permissible ground for removal, exclusion or restriction. Disagreement with a specific idea or message, and personal objections to materials on religious, political or social grounds, are the most common grounds for challenges and the most suspect. Such concerns may justify a parent’s request that his or her child be assigned alternate material, and if shared more widely they may suggest the need for discussion about how teachers and school officials can better explain the educational value of the material, and ways in which any perceived harms can be alleviated, perhaps through inclusion of additional materials or otherwise. But such personal viewpoint-based concerns, standing alone, rarely justify removal of a book or other material, and may raise First Amendment issues.

A committee – often composed of instructional staff, library staff, and administrators, and sometimes including students and parents – ordinarily processes complaints. Their recommendation is usually subject to a review process, but the judgment of such a committee made up by professionals, with or without lay members, is entitled to deference if grounded in sound educational and pedagogical principles. Its decision should only be reversed for compelling educational reasons. Materials should never be removed unless the complaint procedures are followed, and materials should never be removed prior to completion of the complaint process.

These principles, if uniformly and consistently implemented, protect students whose right to learn about something should not be limited to conform to some other individual’s or family’s preferences. They also protect educators in the exercise of their professional judgment, and help insulate them and the school district from legal challenge and community pressure.

  • School administrators and teachers should work together to develop an understanding about how they will respond if material is challenged, recognizing that it is impossible to predict what may be challenged.
  • Educators should always have a rationale for the materials employed – regardless of whether they think something is potentially "controversial."
  • In approaching material that may be controversial, keep parents advised about what material students are using and why it has been selected.
  • Encourage parents to raise questions about curricular materials directly with their child’s teacher, and encourage teachers to be willing and available to discuss concerns with parents.
  • Schedule regular meetings for parents. In one innovative program in South Carolina, called Communicate through Literature, librarian Pat Scales invited parents to the library once a month, without students, to discuss contemporary young adult books that their children might be reading, to understand how the books helped their children grow intellectually and emotionally, and to encourage parents to use the discussion of books to spark conversation with their children. She never had a censorship case, but had many calls from parents asking her to recommend books for their children to address troublesome issues. (Pat Scales’ book, Teaching Banned Books (American Library Association, 2001) describes this program in detail.)
  • Involve members of the community in any debate over challenged materials. Broadening the discussion usually reveals that only a small number of people object on the same material, or on the same ground, but that if one person’s preferences are taken into account, others will expect the same treatment – making almost everything vulnerable to challenge.
  • Support the value of intellectual and academic freedom. Conscientious teachers who are unlucky enough to get caught in the middle of a censorship dispute – and it could happen to anyone – deserve support from their colleagues and the community if their choices are justifiable educationally. Without such trust and some latitude, teachers will stick only to the tried and true, or the bland and unobjectionable.