Correction: A previous version of this article said the office of instruction administrator acted unilaterally. This is incorrect. The administrator spoke with the superintendent before removing the books. Additionally, a previous version misstated who can now check out the books. They are only available for high school students.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Documents obtained by Target 8 show a West Michigan school district quietly removed several controversial books from district libraries without the knowledge of staff who oversee the collections.
It happened on June 30, 2022, at Forest Hills Public Schools, according to a Library Weeding Log acquired by Target 8 through the Freedom of Information Act.
The log shows an account named “destinyadmin” deleted six books from online collections at the district’s high schools and one of its middle schools.
Of the hundreds of books that were subject to routine “weeding” by library staff in the month of June, only those six bore the entry code destinyadmin.
Superintendent Dan Behm acknowledged Monday an administrator from the district’s office of instruction called him and asked if the books were subject to weeding. He said the books were, so the administrator removed the books.
“We would not do that again,” said Behm in an interview with Target 8. “We would not have administrators making that decision on their own to weed out a book.”
He stopped short, however, of calling the summer removal a “mistake.”
All six of the books removed have prompted some controversy, and half of them have been listed among the nation’s “most challenged” books, including “Beyond Magenta,” which features essays by transgender teens.
Also removed were the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Looking for Alaska,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” graphic novel “My friend Dahmer” and “Nineteen Minutes.”
In a letter to parents dated Feb. 16, Behm addressed allegations the district had “banned” books, including one such claim from The National Coalition Against Censorship, which called for an investigation into Behm’s actions in a news release Feb. 8.
“Recent reports have circulated that administrators have banned books,” wrote Behm in his letter to parents. “This is not accurate.”
He went on to explain the district had been trying to ensure mature content was not available to elementary students, as was alleged by concerned parents at a June school board meeting.
Behm told Target 8 administrators reconfirmed the district’s elementary students do not have access to mature content.
However, he told Target 8 it was during that June review that the office of instruction came upon the six books available to students at the district’s high schools.
“Our materials coordinators (library staff) were off for the summer, and that’s when we noticed a few of these books at that time,” Behm said. “The correct thing at that time would have been to have our materials coordinators look at those for weeding or set them aside for when they came back for the beginning of the year.”
Instead, Behm acknowledged, an administrator within the office of instruction pulled the books after speaking with him.
Behm said the administrator weeded out the six titles, not due to their controversial content, but because students had not shown interest in them, which is a routine cause for removal to make way for other books.
Behm made that claim in the parent letter too.
“Some books that have been the subject of controversy among some adults happen to be among books that have been weeded out of the collection because they have not been checked out in years or, in some cases, ever,” wrote Behm in the parent letter.
Target 8 asked Behm to check records to determine the checkout history of the six books.
Monday evening, he said he had been unable to find circulation data for those titles.
Behm said he’d been relying on anecdotal research he’d done over the last two years, which showed the books about which parents complained the most were rarely checked out by students.
Whatever their prior checkout history, the six books are once again available to high school students. They are still not available for middle school students.
Behm said media center staff put the books back into circulation amid the district’s effort to update media procedures, a process he said began in January.
Christopher Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said Behm’s explanation isn’t good enough.
“I don’t think that just telling us that six books have been returned is in any way a satisfactory answer,” said Finan in a phone call with Target 8. “What we said from our first letter on is that we thought, and we still think, that the school board needs to conduct a thorough investigation of what has happened and verify how many books were taken out and return them to the libraries until such time they can be reviewed according to the reconsideration policy.”
Forest Hills Public Schools already has a book challenge process in place in cases where, “after discussing the questioned material informally, with appropriate building school officials, no resolution is made.”
Under the policy, complainants must fill out and submit a request for reconsideration form to the building principal who then notifies the office of instruction to convene a meeting of the “Reconsideration Committee.”
That body, which must have representation from certain groups, reviews the material based on a set of guidelines and makes a recommendation to the Board Curriculum Committee, which renders a final decision.
Behm said the district is working to build a system through which parents can restrict their child’s access to certain authors or books if they so choose.
The district is also creating guidelines for media center staff that detail the processes for weeding materials and handling book challenges, among other issues.
Behm said such procedures would ensure consistency, which is critical, particularly amid today’s political and cultural divide.
“Books have sort of been weaponized for the last couple years with schools,” said Behm. “What we want to make sure is that parents are making decisions for their own children, and that parents aren’t making decisions for other children. And, quite frankly, we as school educators don’t want to be making those decisions for parents’ kids either. We want to empower parents to do that.”
He also wants to ensure that all students recognize themselves in the books the district offers.
“We want students to be able to see themselves validated and reflected in books that they read. It may not be every book, but we don’t want students to say, ‘I’ve never seen my own family structure reflected in a book before,'” he said.