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Owasso school board amends book selection policies; district had pulled all graphic novels for review

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Citing parent feedback, Owasso Public Schools’ Board of Education voted Monday night to formally codify its book selection and review practices to include provisions specifically targeting graphic novels, books that are presented with illustrations throughout.

Among the policy changes approved by a 4-0 vote was a requirement that every graphic novel will be reviewed by at least three faculty members for “sexually graphic content and extreme vulgarity” before it is allowed on the shelves at any Owasso campus library.

“We believe the policy we present you tonight reflects the good practices of our library media specialists and incorporates the suggestions by the board and community that not only bolsters but provides more clarity within the policy,” Superintendent Margaret Coates said.

Amendments to the policy were already in motion due to a new law passed in April by the Oklahoma Legislature explicitly requiring that all school library collections be reflective of community standards for the population they serve.

That measure took effect on Nov. 1, prompting the board to include a review of the district’s policy at its September and October meetings. The proposed changes were ultimately tabled at the board’s Oct. 10 meeting.

According to court documents, the board’s Oct. 10 decision to table the matter rather than vote on a new policy that did not include restrictions on pornography led Owasso parent Tim Reiland to have verbal exchanges with both an Owasso Reporter staff member and a school board member on district property after the meeting.

The district banned Reiland from school property after those encounters, a move the board partially rescinded after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order sought by Reiland against the district. After a hearing Monday, the judge converted that restraining order into a preliminary injunction.

Earlier in the school year, Reiland objected to the inclusion of “Blankets” on the library shelves at Owasso High School. Published in 2003, the semiautobiographical graphic novel received two Eisner and three Harvey awards and was lauded by both Time magazine and the American Library Association.

Along with child abuse, the book does contain some depictions of nudity and sex.

“My daughter can’t even hold hands with her boyfriend at school because that’s inappropriate, but she can flip through the pages of a book and see the genitalia of underage children and children being raped — all in graphic depiction,” Reiland said at Monday night’s meeting. “To me, that isn’t appropriate for a school setting.”

The district owns a single copy of “Blankets.” Since it was placed on the library shelves at Owasso High School in 2004, the book has been checked out 18 times. It has not been returned to circulation since Reiland lodged his complaint in August.

After Reiland’s complaint, Owasso officials pulled all graphic novels from all of its campuses for further content review.

Although graphic novels have been returned to the shelves at the district’s elementary and middle school campuses, according to Assistant Superintendent Mark Officer, Owasso officials are still reviewing a portion of the roughly 3,000 graphic novels that were in circulation at Owasso High School.

In an email Tuesday, spokesman Jordan Korphage said the district hopes to have that review process complete before the end of the semester.

“The district chose to go through a self-audit of graphic novels to ensure that images contained in those materials are in line with state laws and community standards,” Korphage said.

“The concerns thus far from members of the community have been about graphic novels. If a parent or community member were to raise concerns about a full-text book and request for it to be removed from our shelves, that book could then go through the reconsideration process.”

While the review continues, some graphic novels are not available at Owasso High School’s library for student check-out, drawing frustration from some students, including Owasso High School senior Elizabeth Donnelly.

A fan of manga, a form of Japanese comics and graphic novels, Donnelly said during Monday night’s meeting that the district’s decision to clear the shelves was an overreaction and is problematic for students who rely on their campus library.

“To have every single volume, along with all the other graphic novels, pulled for review inconvenienced me greatly, as I lost the ability to check out the books I was looking forward to reading,” she said.

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Janice Danforth and Assistant Superintendent Jamie Milligan speak about the books 13 Reasons Why and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl in the Bixby Public Schools library. Ian Maule/Tulsa World

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My primary beat is public education. I am a third-generation graduate of Oklahoma State University, a board member for Oklahoma SPJ and an active member of the Native American Journalists Association.

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