In what reads as a story we’re seeing frequently across the country, a school principal in Kent, Washington, has removed a series of books from Cedar Heights Middle School’s library in anticipation of potential publicity for those materials being made available to students. This “silent” or “quiet” or “soft” censorship has played out from Pennsylvania to Florida, Wisconsin to Washington, and because it’s so rarely reported, less attention has been shined on these stories than those where protestors show up to school board meetings.
Gavin Downing, librarian at Cedar Heights, chose to expand the library’s LGBTQ+ resources over the course of the school year, in alignments with the district’s policy on supplemental material. Policy 2020P notes that supplemental materials are selected based on a number of factors, including that they “provide non-stereotypical presentation of diverse racial, ethnic, gender and ability groups.” Items purchased for the library must align with this policy, as well as withstand the standards of decency in their depictions of sex and obscenities, guided by professional reviews.
All materials purchased for the library are guided by the same procedures for formal challenge as those for curriculum, as outlined in the above-linked Policy 2020P. Library materials, while they do sometimes supplement the curriculum, are not supplemental material. They’re choice options..
Downing, upon researching appropriate titles to add to the collection serving 7th and 8th graders was LC Rosen’s Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts). The book garnered favorable reviews, and Downing vetted it carefully.
“On Thursday, December 9th, my principal entered the library, carrying the book, appearing quite upset,” explained Downing. “She said that a student had come to her and shared a section from the book and wanted to know why she allowed it at the school.”
When asked if the principal had read the book, she said no, and Downing said that he stood by his inclusion of the book in the library and the student and/or their parents may file a formal complaint, per policy. The principal agreed to read the book in full before proceeding.
The following day, she emailed Downing asking for a list of all “sexually explicit books” in the library. Hours later, she then instead asked for a meeting after school, and wanted Downing to bring all “sexually explicit” books with me.
“I brought union representation into this meeting, along with several books that had been accused of being sexually explicit over the years: Speak, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Hate U Give, a human biology book, a pregnancy book, Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, the Bible, and a couple others,” said Downing.
The meeting didn’t go well.
Principal Erika Hanson called Jack of Hearts “exposure” and believed it was inappropriate for 12-14 year olds to have access to in the school library.
“[S]he believed that our students shouldn’t see any relationships in their media with anything beyond hand-holding or maybe kissing. She felt my selection of “sexually explicit” books that I brought to the meeting indicated that I was not taking her seriously,” explained Downing.
The principal then mentioned “how bad the school would look” if a parent complained about it.
In addition, Hanson had another book at her desk from the library collection. It was if I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. She said a student complained about that title as well. The well-reviewed book by and about a trans person was inappropriate because “in one scene, a guy puts his hand up a girl’s skirt.”
Downing brought up the process for book challenges per policy — and indeed, if it was a student complaining about the books, they would be able to proceed through the appropriate channels — but the principal claimed she had the power to override that policy. She could pull any book at any time.
Before winter break commenced, Downing reached out to union leadership expressing concern, and the leadership said they would investigate the situation because they, too, were uneasy. They reached out to the district’s Teaching and Learning Department and spoke with DeNelle West, who would investigate. West was concerned about these decisions.
But on January 6, after break and immediately after Downing submitted an order for more library books, an email from the principal landed in his inbox. It had four points:
She had the right to pull any book at any time. The same board policy giving her the authority to do that for classroom libraries extended to the school’s library more broadly. She would be pulling Jack of Hearts and If I Was Your Girl. She demanded all “sexually explicit” material in the library be given to her by Friday, January 14, so she could remove them from the collection. She provided a definition for “sexually explicit material” from the Federal Trade Commission.The principal would need to check every single book Downing wished to purchase for the collection so she could have final approval. She would be creating a council at the school to give Downing direction on “age appropriate material.”
Downing forwarded the email to the union, who found one of West’s superiors decided to back the principal on her decision to remove the books.
The librarian continued to seek support, including reaching out to the state’s GLSEN chapter. One of Washington’s GLSEN board members, Joe Bento, also happens to be on the Kent School District’s Board of Directors. Despite his own involvement and advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ students, Bento’s concerns have also gone unaddressed.
Downing responded to the principal’s email Thursday, January 13, the day before her deadline. He noted that there were legal and ethical issues with her demands, and he requested a sit down discussion.
Instead of setting up an appointment, the next day the principal announced the department heads across the school were losing their purchasing power. Any and all purchases would now need to go through her directly.
“In addition, she started reaching out to other principals, telling them to start pulling books, and to watch out for specific titles,” said Downing.
“On Wednesday, when I arrived at work, I found my most recent book order was waiting for me. But the boxes were already opened, and one book was missing: All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson,” he added. “When I was in the office later that day, I spotted the book sitting on my vice principal’s desk. They never sent me any notice about taking the book.”
Downing was given permission by his union to reach out to media to discuss this censorship, given the channels through which he’s gone have all pointed back to Hanson as the authority on the decisions. No formal complaint about the books were ever filed. Instead, the principal took it upon herself to pull the books and to demand all books be approved by her before being added to the library.
This is in direct conflict with the district’s own collection development policy, as well as in conflict with their recently-announced plans to revolutionize school libraries district wide. Specifically, this censorship of queer voices is out of alignment with the third phase of their plan which seeks to “reinforce equity and excellence.”
The principal’s decision to implement policy related to supplemental materials puts to question the role of the school library more broadly. The collection offers materials that are supplemental, but that’s not the school library’s primary mission — this is especially clear in reading the goals for revolutionizing those facilities. The union maintains that library books are choice material and don’t fall under the supplemental materials jurisdiction of the school’s Instructional Materials Committee. When the union contacted Kent’s interim school superintendent, he was concerned the removal of the books would constitute a Civil Rights violation.
Christine Avery, the district’s Executive Director of Learning Improvement insists the library’s collections are supplemental materials and backs up Hanson’s decision. It’s likely this decision, as well as the agreement from Jim Schechl, the district’s other Executive Director of Learning Improvement, that led to conversations around the book removals stalling.
Both the union and Downing maintain that because materials in the library are not required reading, they are choice.
Downing’s story showcases what is happening broadly but in ways that many don’t ever hear about. Too often, whistleblowers face retaliation for speaking up (see: Brooky Parks at the High Plains Library District) or emerge from those who don’t have a level of authority to make policy change (see: the Golden Sower awards). In this story, Downing’s exhausted all of the resources available to him, and because of that, has had to reach out to media to amplify the story and put pressure on the school and board.
The school board met on Wednesday, January 26, before the publication of this article and before this story had the chance to reach a wide audience. But this is where writing letters and seeking further coverage if you’re in the area from local media will help bring this story and others like it to light.
The Kent School District School Board members are listed here, and each member’s email is included. Bento would make an excellent first reach, given his involvement with advocating on behalf of queer students. You can also reach out to the district’s interim superintendent, as well as other members of the school administrative team, including their team dedicated to issues of equity.
Downing reports other librarians in the district are bracing for the impact in their facilities as well from their principals.