Schools left waiting for guidance on book law

A new state law bans books that depict certain topics in school libraries.
Published: Aug. 17, 2023 at 6:12 PM CDT
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DES MOINES, Iowa - A new state law bans that depict certain topics in school libraries. It took effect in July, but students could see their schools’ bookshelves unchanged when they start classes soon.

Critics of Senate File 496 say it could lead to lots of books being pulled from school libraries. We filed a series of open records requests with districts all across Iowa to see just how many books have been pulled from shelves. That law is in effect now and with the school year just around the corner, many districts say they haven’t reviewed any books yet.

Some district leaders tell us they haven’t reviewed any because they haven’t gotten any guidance from the Iowa Department of Education. Mike Beranek, a third-grade teacher and president of the state’s teacher’s union echoes that.

“From what we understand, they’re not anticipating putting any kind of guidance out, which makes it incredibly difficult for our school districts and for our administrators and Educators to try to navigate the law that has been very ambiguous, and it’s very difficult to understand,” Beranek said.

Beranek says the lack of direction is causing anxiety among Iowa teachers.

“This is creating quite a bit of angst amongst our Educators in our schools. And that they’re trying to interpret something that is just laid out in front of them, that it’s very hard to understand,” Beranek said.

From our open records requests, Cherokee Community Schools says it took “Drama” off of the combined elementary and middle school section of the library and moved it to the middle school section. Superintendent Tom Ryherd says the book was questioned because of “LGBTQ references”.

The Mason City Community School District said they used artificial intelligence to determine which books wouldn’t be compliant with the law. The district pulled 19 books including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, “Gossip Girl”, and “The Kite Runner.”

The Urbandale Community School District made headlines when plans to remove nearly four hundred titles were released. The district has rolled that number back to around 65. Titles include The Handmaids Tale, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and A Brave New World.

“We need to make sure that we’re addressing the needs of all of our children. And there are students who are beginning to understand their role in life, and how they fit into it. And they need to be able to read about themselves and read about others who are similar to them,” Beranek said.

The law is in effect now, but penalties for Iowa teachers not complying with the law start in January. We wanted to ask the Iowa Department of Education on how they’re preparing districts to comply, but they declined our requests for an interview.