School district uses AI to help determine which library books might break new Iowa law

Published: Aug. 16, 2023 at 10:25 PM CDT
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MASON CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - Mason City Assistant Superintendent, Bridgette Exman, said educators across the state were still waiting for guidance on what books needed to be removed from their shelves, but with the start of school starting next week for many students, they wanted to do something as fast as possible.

This spring, lawmakers approved a new law requiring public schools to remove all books that have “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” but exclude religious texts. School libraries must develop “age-appropriate” collections. Exman said she went through a list of commonly challenged books and found 19 in the middle and high school libraries.

“This law is written in a way where teachers and our teacher librarians have individual criminal liability,” she said. “We’re in a place where we have to use an efficient and defensible practice.”

She put those titles through ChatGPT, an online artificial intelligence tool, and asked if the book contained a description of a sex act.

“ChatGPT almost always came back with what I would characterize as a ‘yes but’ answer,” said Exman. “Yes, but it serves as a literary purpose, or yes, but it’s used in this context, and unfortunately, the law doesn’t give us a yes but.”

She said it was a quick and effective way to make sure the school is following the law while also allowing educators to focus on the start of the new school year.

“Our goal here was to be efficient and to demonstrate a good faith effort to be in compliance with the law,” she said. “That is our legal and ethical obligation as a school district, regardless of what our personal beliefs are about the law.

She said parents have always had the ability to review books or a curriculum, but said in the last 20 years, they have never seen a formal challenge.