The Williston Basin School District #7 Board had their regular meeting on Monday night and one particular agenda item concerning books available to students in school libraries resulted in some heated input from the public.
Agenda item 10F was for Book Reconsideration Committee approval, coming after a local group, Moms of Liberty of Williams County, submitted a list of books that are available at Williston High School, Williston Middle School, and Missouri Ridge Elementary that they say are inappropriate for children to have access to. Sexual content, glorification of self harm, suicide, drug use, and more were cited to be reasons why the group felt the submitted materials need to be removed from school library shelves.
When public comment was opened at the meeting, Board President Chris Jundt reminded all in attendance that anybody wishing to make public comment on this agenda item needed to keep their comments directly related to the structure of the Book Reconsideration Committees.
Mariah Bates, speaking on behalf of Moms of Liberty, said that she believes community members need to be involved when new books are brought into the schools. Another representative of the Moms of Liberty group, Karen Krenz, blamed the third party entity, the America Library Association, as the reason for the materials in question are available right now in the first place.
“We as a community need to reign in that control of what students have access to in our libraries,” Krenz said.
Krenz also was the first to speak on an issue that many after her agreed with, school board members not being listed on any of the Book Reconsideration Committees.
“It is your job to help protect our children from sexual pornographic materials and much more that these books represent,” Krenz said.
Krenz continued her comment by reading an excerpt from one of the books on the reconsideration list, “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, stating that this title is available in multiple schools within District 7.
Board Vice President Kyle Renner interrupted Krenz while she was reading the excerpt from the book, citing a point of order.
“I think we’re here to talk about the makeup of the committees, not the books,” Renner said.
Kenz rebutted that the book list was included on the agenda, therefore public comment on the books should be allowed to which Renner responded that it is the job of the committees to review the contents of the books.
“I know you all on the school board have not done your due diligence with the books. I highly recommend that you look into these books and what is in these books,” Krenz said. “I expect to see all of the school board members that represent our community on the committees because you need to know what kind of books are in our library.”
“It gave my soul sickness reading some of these books for days. You would be mortified,” Krenz said before finishing her public comment.
Several other speakers in favor of removing the listed books from school libraries spoke at the meeting, some being cut short due to focusing on the content of the books rather than committee structure. These speakers ranged from more Moms of Liberty group members, legislators and legislative candidates, and other community members.
One community member approached the microphone to speak and was visibly shaking and in tears. Holly Radtke said that for the first 14 years of her life she was a victim of brutal rape and incest,therefore this topic was causing her to be in a post traumatic stress disorder episode.
“The day I became a parent I vowed to my children that I would protect them from any form of sexual content, sexual abuse, anything. That is my job as a parent and this school is making my job and my promise to my kids a heck of a lot harder by having these books in the school,” Radtke said. “I try to prepare my children for the world and all the evil that’s out there, but that’s my job as a parent to do, not for the school.”
Two speakers criticized Board members for not looking up at commenters when they were speaking on why they believe the books should be removed or not showing enough emotion about this topic.
Not all who commented were in favor of removing the books from the shelves, including one concerned community member, Charles Gentles.
“When any government or church tells its subjects you may not read this, you may not see this, you are forbidden to know this... the end result is tyranny no matter how pious the motives,” Gentles said. “Now is the time to show the community that you, as members of this Board, support freedom and reject censorship. Only fascists seek to ban books; let the kids read.”
Denise Bervick, a teacher who has taught at Williston High School for 19 years, spoke about how hurtful some of the allegations against her and her fellow teachers have been.
“It saddens me to think that my community does not trust me and my colleagues to look with a discerning eye at what is placed in our libraries. I, too, do not want my children exposed to pornography. I am your neighbor, I have had your children, I attend your church. It hurts me that you think that I want to indoctrinate and torture your children,” Bervick said.
After several commenters finished, the agenda item was opened up to Board discussion. One topic of contention was whether Board members should be a part of the Book Reconsideration Committees.
Renner explained that he did not feel that Board members should be a part of the committees because they will already be a part of the process after the committees reach a determination.
“I don’t think it would be right if we put ourselves on those committees, making recommendations to ourselves,” Renner said.
Board member Heather Wheeler disagreed with Renner, saying that she believes that Board members should be on the committees, especially considering the comments from the public.
Jundt cited a previously approved Board policy that stated that the committee shall be composed of a media specialist, a teacher from each education level serviced by the District that are selected by the Superintendent, a parent or parents, a principal or principals, and the Superintendent. He noted the word “shall” was important in this policy.
Jundt also said that approved Board policy states that the Board is required to read every single one of the books on the list.
In the interim reconsideration period, the books have been removed from school library shelves according to Dr. Richard Faidley. If any books were checked out when the reconsideration request was received, Faidley said that once they are returned, they will not be put back into circulation.
The Board voted 4-2 to approve the Book Reconsideration Committees as they are listed. Board members Cory Swint and Heather Wheeler voted against approving the committees as listed.