Janice Danforth reads a prepared statement to the Bixby Board of Education, making the case to remove two books from the district's libraries. Danforth is a Bixby parent and the Tulsa County chapter chair of Moms for Liberty.

Beth Wallis / StateImpact Oklahoma

After community challenge, Bixby Public Schools will keep pair of books in libraries

"Thirteen Reasons Why" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" will stay available for Bixby students

  • Beth Wallis
  • Robby Korth

A pair of books that a group of local parents asked to be pulled from Bixby Public Schools library shelves will stay. 

That’s following a special meeting and vote by the local school board.

The Bixby Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to keep the book “Thirteen Reasons Why” and a margin of 3-2 to keep the book “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in the wake of the challenge.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Board member Matt Dotson said. “When you set a precedent of ‘let’s get rid of all books we don’t agree with,’ that’s a little concerning.” 

A committee of Bixby educators and parents had recommended the books stay prior to the vote.

“After meeting with the librarians numerous times through the process, it is apparent that they are very cognizant of the population they serve,” Assistant Superintendent Jamie Milligan said. “They do their best to keep a balanced selection by choosing material which represents various viewpoints. They are highly qualified professionals who take these responsibilities seriously.”

Bixby mother Janice Danforth said she wanted the books removed from the district because of their mature themes related to sexuality and suicide.

“A student’s mind is his or her greatest asset,” said Danforth, who also serves as Chair for the Tulsa County Chapter of Moms for Liberty. “It’s why we are here in the first place — to nurture it, to grow it. So why does the administration feel it is ok to fill it with filth, with vulgarity and with obscenity?”

And that’s ultimately why she felt like it was important to take the challenge up to the full school board after a committee of educators and parents recommended keeping the books in school.

“Teens have a lack of experience emotionally, and there are enormous emotional changes taking place during those years,” she said. “Teens’ hormones are raging and will be aroused at the slightest mention of a sexual experience — possibly setting the stage or planting the seed for interest in sex that may not have been there otherwise.”

Getting to this level on a challenge is rare in Oklahoma – this was the first time it had happened in Bixby in at least a decade – but challenges like it are becoming more common nationwide.

The American Library Association says school librarians reported more than 300 challenges to library materials across the country last fall, more than doubling the total the group saw in all of 2020.

The books in school libraries don’t end up there by accident. Collections are carefully supplemented and culled by librarians who are required to have a Master’s Degree, according to state regulations.

One of a librarian’s chief duties is to formulate the reconsideration policy like the one in Bixby. 

Generally, there are layers that a challenge must go through before it can reach the full school board. 

Challenges have to be made using a form, then work their way up from school administrators to the committee. Parents can then appeal committee decisions to the full, elected school board.

In the future, Bixby is considering a system where parents can also restrict what their children can check out from the library. The parent would create a list of books the child can check out from home before the student could take it off a library shelf.

A measure before Oklahoma’s legislature this session would require these policies to be formalized and written down in every district. Senate Bill 1640, sponsored by Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, would require all schools to have a formal reconsideration process written down and accessible to the public. 

The hope is to build awareness of what’s available in a library, Floyd wrote in a news release.

“My goal is to help provide clarity and awareness about those rules and procedures,” she wrote.

The author of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” Jesse Andrews, recently took to Twitter to defend the book, which has seen similar challenges to the one it faced in Bixby.

In a lengthy thread he said the characters talk like teenagers and that makes it relatable to them, therefore encouraging reading.

“I used to find these attempts to ban Me & Earl & the Dying Girl funny, just because they were so ridiculous,” Andrews tweeted in January. “It’s a potty-mouthed book about how hard it is to process pain and grief, and how hard it is to grow up. The idea that this harms anyone is beyond stupid. Anyway, I’m not laughing anymore. These book bans are picking up momentum.”