Q: I’m studying to be a school librarian. I’m concerned about what I should do if my administrator tells me to remove a book because it is stirring up controversy and we have a policy with reconsideration procedures (OR we do not have a policy with reconsideration procedures?) How do I respond?
If your district has a policy violated by the principal’s request, your best immediate response will be, “I know we both want to make sure the board-approved policy and procedures are followed at all times. If the book is removed at this point, it will be in violation of the board-approved policy.”
If possible, wait for a response. Most administrators know they are legally required to follow every official policy of their district. Your discreet but clear reminder of that responsibility might prompt your administrator to rethink the request, making it more likely that the board-approved reconsideration procedures will be followed.
Meanwhile remember that as the school library media specialist, you’re the building-level expert on Intellectual Freedom. (Yes, you are!) Perhaps your administrator hasn’t reviewed this policy for some time. You can be her/his information source at the moment such information will be necessary.
You might say, “Maybe we can sit down and go over the reconsideration policy together, so we’re each clear about the steps we need to take.”
In addition to the policy and procedures at hand at all times, be certain to keep supporting information in your file affirming the importance of following a fair, democratic reconsideration process. (Such information was probably used or even appended to the district policy at the time it was adopted.) Share this information as well.
What if the administrator won’t follow the board-approved procedures?
Continue to clarify in person, or in writing if at all possible, exactly what you’re being told to do: “I want to make sure I understand: Are you instructing me to disregard the official, board-approved policy of our district? Are you telling me to remove a book from the library without going through the district’s procedures for reconsideration?”
In other words, the responsibility for following – or not following – the board-approved reconsideration procedures belongs to the administrator, not to you.
If these exchanges are written, keep copies of everything. If they aren’t written, keep notes with dates and times of all verbal communication.
You might try one more time: “The purpose of the board-approved policy is to protect the interests and rights of everyone involved when someone has a complaint about material. I’m concerned a dangerous precedent is being set here by not following the policy for handling a complaint.” You are reminding the administrator that it will be difficult in the future for her/him to rely on this policy when the situation is reversed and the administrator wants to keep a different book in the library or the curriculum.
If you’re absolutely instructed to disregard the board-approved policy, you have a clear choice to make: you can do exactly what you’ve been told to do, or not do it. If you don’t take the action you have been directed to take, you may face future consequences for insubordination for refusing to follow an administrator’s order. Refusing to comply is a very serious decision, and a very personal one.
Regardless of your decision, be certain to contact your union representative and your district media coordinator to report what you were ordered to do. If you decide later to bring charges, you’ll have that documentation of what took place.
We hope that this also makes it clear why an up-to-date, board-approved policy is so important. If you are working at a school district that does not have a board-approved policy that outlines steps to take when complaints arise, then there is no requirement that a fair and democratic process be followed. You can certainly raise your concerns about removing a book hastily with your administrator if she or he is willing to listen, and you can certainly state why you think it is important to proceed carefully, but without a board-approved policy, things can and do happen on a whim.
(By the way, we know board-approved policy sounds stiff and formal, but we’ve used it intentionally. The more you “think it” and say it yourself, the easier it will be to use this phrase readily and naturally when/if you find yourself in a situation with and administrator or anyone else in your building or community about what happens when a complaint occurs.)