Wyoming School Book Ban Controversy May Signal a Change in District Policy

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On April 25, Wyoming's Teton County Board of Education (TCBE) voted 4-2 to ban Julius Lester’s When Dad Killed Mom (Silver Whistle) from the Jackson Hole Middle School (JHMS) library. However, after much attention from local media and the book’s author, district policy is being "reviewed and re-written so that incidents like this will not happen again," Board member Zia Yasrobie told BTW via e-mail.

TCBE Vice Chairman Steve Ashley, owner of Valley Bookstore, was one of two Board members who voted against the recommendation. In a May 1 Jackson Hole News article, Ashley said he would have liked to see the book remain available to older students at JHMS. "I’m supportive of the review system, but I wish they had more options. I’d like to see the library there have a system to make sure we don’t lose a book for one group because it’s inappropriate for another."

When Dad Killed Mom is the story of a 12-year-old boy, Jeremy, and his 14-year-old sister, Jenna, who are coping with the trauma of their mother’s murder by their father. This year, the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, selected the title as one of its "Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers." Among other awards, Lester’s fiction has been selected as a Newbery Honor medal and a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award.

In mid-January, a parent filed a complaint against the book with Superintendent of Schools Sandy Oehring, as reported by the Jackson Hole News. TCBE turned the issue over to a review committee, which is composed of two teachers and three community members as well as JHMS principal Pam Shea and librarian Jan Segerstrom. After reading the novel, and after several meetings, the committee recommended 5-2 to ban the book from JHMS library.

TCBE then voted to accept the recommendation.

"The committee recommended to the Board that the book be removed from the JHMS shelves," said Cheryl Ranck Schwartz, a member of TCBE, via e-mail. "The Board determined the committee followed the district's current review process, and, ultimately, accepted the committee's recommendation."

However, bookseller Ashley may get his wish that the school accept a more flexible system. Schwartz said that, in addition to reviewing the district’s current policies and procedures, TCBE is looking into a number of alternatives to bans, including asking for parent permission to check out books with controversial subject matter from the school library. Additionally, "we are sending our head librarian to a training seminar concerning these issues and hope to receive ‘best practices’ information to consider for our district," she said.

Lester, who sent off letters to three Wyoming newspapers -- the Jackson Hole Guide, Jackson Hole News, and the Casper Tribune -- expressing his disappointment with the decision, subsequently has had a number of contacts with the Board. He told BTW that three Board members expressed to him that they are now feeling "uneasy with the decision [to ban his book]."

One such Board member is Yasrobie. "I was not involved in the review process of the book but had to vote in the affirmative to uphold the committee's decision to remove the book," he explained. "I have had to make some hard decisions in my life, but this was probably the most difficult one. I, as a parent and a school board member, am against banning any book, and my children have always been free to read anything they wanted to."

As for When Dad Killed Mom, it is unclear as to whether or not the Board will lift the ban on Lester’s book when and if policy changes are made, the author told BTW. And while the author disagreed with the Board’s decision, he stressed that he had "good exchanges" with its members. "After we talked, they understood more about where I am coming from," he said. "The Board approached this in a way that showed they have integrity." --David Grogan