Mat-Su school officials return challenged books to library shelves following internal review

The titles were returned to Mat-Su school library shelves this month following votes from the school board and a review by district officials.

Mat-Su school officials return challenged books to library shelves following internal review
A Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District administration building in Palmer. (Amy Bushatz/Mat-Su Sentinel)

What you need to know:

  • Sixteen books in Mat-Su school libraries challenged by community members last year have been returned to shelves after an internal review by district administrators determined they do not violate a state law against distributing indecent material to children.
  • The books were part of a larger list of 56 challenged titles. The Mat-Su school board ordered a citizens' advisory panel to review the books. The school board voted to permanently remove seven of those from circulation, while a total of 30 have been returned to shelves. Four additional titles are still awaiting consideration. The 15 remaining titles have been lost or stolen and were removed from the review list.
  • The current citizens' committee will disband after its meeting this week. The school board voted this month to reauthorize the panel but did not select new members. District officials said they have streamlined their internal book review process but did not share details on how it will be conducted.

PALMER – More than a dozen Mat-Su school library titles challenged as violating a state statute against distributing indecent material to children are back on school shelves after district administrators determined they did not violate the law, district officials said Tuesday.

The 16 books, which include "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, were initially analyzed by a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District citizens' library committee and then sent by the school board to district administrators for a final review. They join 14 books previously cleared for reshelving through a series of votes by the school board.

The books are on a list of 56 titles challenged by community members last year. The 11-member advisory committee was created by the school board to determine whether the challenged books violate a state law that makes it illegal to provide "indecent material" to children under 16.

All of the books on the list were preemptively pulled from circulation by school administrators last year.

So far, the school board has voted to permanently remove seven books from school shelves, while 30 have been returned as a part of the process, according to a school district tally. The library panel is slated to consider four more titles this week. 

The school board voted to remove the seven titles from circulation after the advisory panel cast unanimous or near-unanimous votes that each title constitutes "indecent material" under state law. The school board opted to send to the district for final review titles that carried more than one panel "no" vote against a ruling of indecency. The additional 14 titles were voted back to school shelves by the school board after the panel recommended they be retained.

For example, in March the panel voted 11-0 that "Ugly Love" by Colleen Hoover violated state law, and in April the school board voted to permanently remove it from circulation. At an earlier meeting, the panel voted 6-5 that Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" met the standard for indecency. However, instead of voting to remove that book, the board opted to instead send it to school administrators for a final decision.

Books permanently removed from circulation include "Call Me By Your Name" by Andre Aciman; "You" by Caroline Kepnes; "It Ends With Us," "Ugly Love" and "Verity" by Colleen Hoover; and "A Court of Mist and Fury" and "A Court of Silver Flames" by Sarah Maas. Permanently removed books have been donated to bookstores or “surplused,” district spokesman John Notestine said in an email Tuesday. 

Notestine did not respond to a request for information as to what happens to "surplused" books. 

The books reviewed by administrators were returned to the shelves of all nine district high schools, four middle schools and a correspondence homeschool program, Notestine said. Titles were returned only to the schools where they had been before they were removed. Parents with students at those schools were emailed a list of the returned titles, he said.

Two of the books newly reshelved by school administrators are the subject of an ongoing borough public library review following a community member challenge. "Red Hood" by Elana K. Arnold and "Identical" by Ellen Hopkins are slated for examination by the borough's newly formed Library Citizens' Advisory Committee, a panel similar to the one created by the school board. The committee is tasked with reviewing books challenged in the borough's public libraries.

The Borough Assembly approved members of that committee last month. The first borough citizens' library panel meeting is scheduled for July 8.

The school district panel has reviewed three to five books per meeting since August, according to its website. The panel has thus far made recommendations on 35 of the 56 titles originally slated for review, the website states. Four more will be examined at its final meeting, scheduled for Thursday.

The current district panel must disband at the end of this month, according to district policy. The board may select members of a new panel to review remaining or newly challenged books, the policy states. 

But that may not be necessary, school Superintendent Randy Trani said at a June 5 school board meeting. Fifteen of the 56 challenged titles will not be reviewed by the committee because they are no longer in the district's library collection due to loss or theft, according to board documents. And rather than select members for a new citizens' panel, the school board voted at that meeting to instead send the final two titles awaiting review directly to the school administration for a decision. 

Rather than empaneling a new committee, future book challenges can be considered under a "streamlined" version of the district’s library collection policy, Trani said at the meeting.  

“We're trying to make an effort so we don't end up in this situation again, and have to rely on the generosity of 11 people to read a book a week for a year,” he said.

District officials did not respond to a request for information about how that policy has changed or what the reviews will entail.

The school board voted 6-1 at the June meeting to reauthorize the committee for the upcoming school year, with board member Ted Swanson voting no. The board did not select new panel members.

The citizens' panel was first ordered by the school board last April after community members brought book challenges directly to the board rather than waiting for the district to review them.

Recommendations made at the committee's final meeting this month will also be reviewed by the school board. The school board's next meeting is scheduled for early August.

Each book considered by the citizens’ committee receives two votes. One vote considers whether the book violates Alaska state law. A second vote considers whether the book should be removed from all shelves, remain on all shelves, or remain on high school shelves only. Only panelists who have read the book under review are allowed to vote.

The district administration’s board-ordered internal book review was conducted by an assistant superintendent, with final decisions based on the citizen panel's recommendations plus feedback from the district's library coordinator, Notestine said.

Individual school librarians and principals can also decide to review or remove any book in their collection on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Parents can choose to restrict student access to library books as part of the student registration process on the ParentVue online platform, he said.

An ongoing lawsuit filed in November alleges that removing challenged books from school library shelves violates students' constitutional rights.

-- Amy Bushatz can be contacted at

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