Anatomy of a book banning

A South Dakota school district planned to destroy Dave Eggers’s novel. He went to investigate.

Jill Haugo, left, and Natalie Slack hold copies of the five books deemed inappropriate for high school English students in Rapid City, S.D. The ban “just demonstrated a complete lack of respect for what we do and all the work that was done to choose relevant literature for these older students,” said Haugo, who teaches at Central High School. (Dawnee LeBeau for The Washington Post)
Jill Haugo, left, and Natalie Slack hold copies of the five books deemed inappropriate for high school English students in Rapid City, S.D. The ban “just demonstrated a complete lack of respect for what we do and all the work that was done to choose relevant literature for these older students,” said Haugo, who teaches at Central High School. (Dawnee LeBeau for The Washington Post)
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In early May I discovered that my book “The Circle” had been pulled from high school reading lists in Rapid City, S.D. It was one of five books — four novels and a memoir — that were deemed inappropriate for high school seniors. Copies of these books had been bought in the spring of 2021, meant to be read by seniors in the fall of 2021. But upon discovering brief sexual passages in each book, school officials pulled the titles from classrooms and even the schools’ libraries. Officials eventually decided that these books, most of which had never been unpacked from their boxes and were in mint condition, should be destroyed.

This was my first time having a book I’d written banned, but two of the books, Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” are routinely assigned to high school students in the United States and are routinely challenged. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a coming-of-age novel that has sold millions of copies, features a few scenes of awkward teenage sexual exploration. “Fun Home,” an illustrated memoir about Bechdel’s complicated childhood and her coming out as gay, includes a few cartoon panels of two young women engaged in sex. Both books had been offered to Rapid City high school students in English classes for many years before 2021, without controversy.

But the coronavirus pandemic and an influx of new school board members have drastically changed the atmosphere for teachers in the district. I visited Rapid City in May and spoke to 25 teachers spread across the district’s three high schools. Uniformly, they said that their work had become far more difficult in the last two years, and that the book ban was yet one more sign that their jobs were becoming untenable. At the school board meeting I attended, on May 17, multiple speakers lamented the “mass exodus” of teachers. There are currently 157 vacant positions in a district that employs 1,680. Eighty-eight of the open positions are for classroom teachers. Parents and students say the district is “disintegrating” and “imploding.” Jill Haugo, a nine-year teacher at Central High School, said she has never seen anything like this. “Teachers are breaking their contracts in the middle of the year and just leaving.”

How all this happened is instructive. In fact, it might be a blueprint for how any school district can be overtaken by the narrow interests of people and groups without a direct stake in the schools. One such person is the president of the Rapid City school board, Kate Thomas.

Thomas is a longtime resident of Rapid City, married with seven children, many of them grown. She was first elected to the school board in 2015. At that time, her children were home-schooled. One of them, a teenager, occasionally attended programs at Central High School. Thomas herself had attended a Rapid City public elementary school, but she enrolled in Catholic school for middle and high school. Her biography on the Rapid City school district website lists her as “a parishioner of Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” She currently has no children who attend any schools in the district.

Shortly after Thomas was first elected to the school board, Kathryn Kettering, an English teacher at Central High School, received an email from Thomas. “She told me that she’d received a complaint from a parent who said I was teaching a pornographic book,” Kettering said. The book in question was John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” which includes a brief scene describing characters’ fumbling attempts at oral sex.

“In all my years teaching,” Kettering said, “I’ve never had an objection to any material I’ve assigned. In fact, parents often told me in conferences how much ‘Looking for Alaska’ meant to their kids.” Thomas did not name the parent who had complained, and Kettering never heard directly from any parent about the book. Principal Mike Talley told Kettering that he would deal with the email from Thomas, and Kettering never heard anything else about the issue.

When the coronavirus hit, the mask debate engulfed Rapid City as it had every other region in the country. But in Rapid City, it dovetailed with a June 2021 election, in which four school board seats were to be filled. Residents were accustomed to genial and uneventful school board races, where little money was spent, awareness was modest, and voter turnout was low. But this election was very different in tenor and scale.

To no small extent, that difference came from two chief influences, the Family Heritage Alliance and the Free Republic Political Action Committee. The Family Heritage Alliance is a South Dakota-based nonprofit whose website explains its mission this way: “It is our wish that our culture and our government bring glory to Christ.” The group has sponsored events throughout South Dakota that the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as anti-Islam, and it has promoted articles, videos and speakers that criticize homosexuality. (“We fight for families and we don’t apologize for it,” Norman Woods, executive director of the Family Heritage Alliance, told The Washington Post in response to a request for comment.)

The Family Heritage Alliance is also active in training, supporting and recruiting candidates for a variety of public offices. One of them was Deb Baker, who had previously been the FHA’s treasurer and a board member. Just before the election, she was removed from the group’s corporate filings. Though her children and some of her grandchildren attended Rapid City schools, Baker currently has no children in any local schools. Her official bio says, “She believes all children deserve the same great education and life preparation that her children and she received from this district.”

Baker’s opponent in the election was Natalie Slack, owner of a small marketing firm. When Slack ran, her kids were 13, 15 and 17, and all attended Rapid City public schools. She is a registered Democrat but had voted for Republicans many times, and never thought of Rapid City as a place split down hard partisan lines. She said the pandemic and the debate over masks and vaccines changed that, as did Donald Trump’s visit to nearby Mount Rushmore in 2020. “His visit polarized and radicalized people here” and stoked fears of teachers pushing a “woke” agenda, she said. A pro-Baker campaign mailer sent around Rapid City by the conservative Shining Light PAC urged voters: “Protect our students! Educate them, not indoctrinate them!

The other major influence in the school board election was the Free Republic Political Action Committee, headed by Rapid City resident Kevin Maher. Maher is the president of the Rapid City Catholic School System, which oversees the three local Catholic schools. Though he has no children in the Rapid City public school system, his PAC poured $16,950 into the school board election, spreading its donations among four candidates: Baker, Thomas, Gabe Doney and Breanna Funke. Though $16,950 does not seem like a great sum, it dwarfed other donations in the races. (Maher did not respond to a request for comment sent to his PAC’s email address.)

In the end, voter turnout was low — less than 13 percent of the electorate cast ballots — and all four candidates supported by the Family Heritage Alliance and the Free Republic PAC won school board seats. Shortly thereafter, Thomas was named president of the board. After she took office in August 2021, the board instituted a policy whereby each of its meetings would begin with a Christian prayer led by a local minister.

“Kate Thomas was terse with members of the public in meetings,” said Timmi Bubac, an English teacher at Stevens High School. “The board members elected were known to not be supportive of teachers, both from actions and comments made in the past.”

Standing between the board and the teachers were the principals of the three local high schools and the district superintendent. Most of the teachers I spoke to said the superintendent, Lori Simon, and the principals had been generally supportive of teachers in the past. But after the new board was installed, the superintendent and principals pursued a course of preemptive censorship.

“There seemed to be more fear driving decision-making on the part of the administration,” said Bubac. “We, as teachers, began to be asked to choose materials that weren’t controversial. In a meeting with administration, my colleague and I were told that we shouldn’t teach a certain book because it contained abortion themes. It was clear that this request was due to the environment of scrutiny that both the board and some members of the community were creating.”

The stage was set for the banning of books.

In the spring of 2021, English teachers at Rapid City’s three public high schools had been asked to put together a reading list for their senior English students. The teachers chose 43 contemporary books, each fitting one of four themes — ethics in society; identity: race, gender and class; humans and the environment; and contemporary poetry — that seniors would concentrate on. For each theme, the students could choose one of six books. The teachers felt this gave students options, affording them control over their reading.

After the English teachers submitted their list, a separate committee reviewed and approved the curriculum of which the books would be a part. The books arrived in Rapid City in May 2021, at a cost of just under $70,000. They included 180 copies of “How Beautiful We Were,” a novel by Imbolo Mbue; 30 copies of “Girl, Woman, Other,” a novel by Bernardine Evaristo; 35 copies of “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel; 75 copies of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a novel by Stephen Chbosky; and 30 copies of my novel, “The Circle.”

But on Aug. 2, 2021, the high school principals and other officials from the district began to question the use of these books. Valerie Seales, the district’s director of teaching, learning and innovation, sent an email to Simon with a photo of a passage from “How Beautiful We Were,” indicating that she had gotten a complaint from a teacher about it. The passage describes a character encountering her parents engaged in sexual activity in the kitchen, a scene similar to the one that was seemingly objectionable in my own novel.

“I ordered that these books be returned to the warehouse,” wrote Seales, who declined to comment on specific details in this story. “The reason I am bringing this to your attention is I think some English teachers are going to want to fight this fight to keep the books. I am taking the stance that they are inappropriate and we will not use them for assigned or voluntary reading list[s]. Let me know if you disagree.”

In an email to the principals the same day, Simon wrote: “Now more than ever, what curriculum and resources/books we use will be subject to public scrutiny. Let’s avoid issues proactively.”

The district then ordered a second review of all the books on the reading list. For the next six weeks, as new passages deemed inappropriate were identified, new instructions were sent by the three high school principals — Jocelyn Hafner of Stevens High School, Jennifer Roberts at Rapid City High and Mike Talley at Central High. An email from Talley on Aug. 19, 2021, read:

“Teachers,

“We have been asked to remove this book [‘Girl, Woman, Other’] from [our] list of Literature options due to the explicit subject matter in the book. An excerpt is provided below. This book, along with the previously discussed book ‘How Beautiful We Were’ need to be boxed up and transferred to the Warehouse. Please box these books up, write the total number of books in each box on the outside of the box, and have them brought to the office. ‘Mandy’ will complete the transfer paperwork for the Warehouse.

“You can get boxes from the custodians. Thank you.”

In an unusual move, custodial staff was tasked with removing the books from classrooms — sometimes in the middle of class. But there were still copies of these books in most of the high school libraries. At one point, upon learning that “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” had not been removed from the Central High library, Talley appeared there — “mad as hell,” in the words of one employee — and pulled the copies from the shelves himself.

All along, teachers tried to make adjustments without much direction from district leaders. “I asked for a meeting with administration about these decisions,” said Timmi Bubac. “I was trying to understand the point of view from which they were making decisions. I scheduled a meeting with Valerie Seales, but she didn’t show up.” She emailed Thomas, the school board president, and got no reply.

“It just demonstrated a complete lack of respect for what we do and all the work that was done to choose relevant literature for these older students,” Jill Haugo of Central High School said. “On top of everything else for the year, it just felt like the last straw.”

The principals and school board did not back down. In fact, at a May 3, 2022, school board meeting, plans were presented to destroy the 350 copies of the five books in question.

Every school district discusses and lists property that is no longer useful. Surplus items may include broken gym equipment, outdated projectors or damaged file cabinets. At the May 3 board meeting, the district’s list of surplus property was published. Notable was that most of the equipment was designated “to be recycled.” Desktop covid dividers were “to be recycled.” A refrigerator was “to be recycled.” But the five books deemed inappropriate were “to be destroyed.”

When the local press, in particular the Rapid City Journal, reported on this language, and when the news became national, the school board doubled down. In an email to the press signed by the entire board, the books in question were declared “pornographic.” It read, in part:

“According to district policy, if a student had the explicit pictures from one of the books on their computers it would be considered pornography and they would be subject to disciplinary action. It is concerning that staff would recommend this material for a reading class. One or more of these books likely violated Codified Law 22-24-27 and would be deemed ‘Harmful to Minors.’ ”

South Dakota’s Codified Law 22-24-27 prevents the distribution to minors of sexually explicit material that is “without serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Given that all five books are literary works that have only a few pages (or just a few paragraphs) of sexual content, the law does not apply in this case. Court rulings, including Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), have further found that books cannot be removed from school libraries simply because certain individuals think they’re offensive.

Unspoken in much of the debate is that the vast majority of books assigned to high-schoolers also contain material that would probably be deemed objectionable under the same standards. The students of Rapid City are still allowed to read “Oedipus Rex,” in which the protagonist kills his father and then sleeps with his mother. They are still allowed to read “The Great Gatsby,” which contains alcoholism, adultery and murder. “Romeo and Juliet,” which remains on reading lists and on the shelves of all three Rapid City public high school libraries, centers on a torrid love affair between teenagers, both of whom kill themselves.

Speaking of underage sex: There is an interesting wrinkle to the banning of sexually explicit books in South Dakota, given that the age of consent in that state is 16. In South Dakota, a 16- or 17-year-old can also be married, if they have signed permission from one parent. That means that in Rapid City, young people aged 16, 17 and 18 can legally have sex, and can legally be married (an arrangement that often includes sex), but they’re not supposed to read about sex in books.

When the book ban made national news, I talked with Amanda Uhle, my colleague at the publishing company McSweeney’s, about making the banned books available to Rapid City high school seniors. We called Mitzi’s Books, an independent bookseller in Rapid City, and we made an arrangement whereby we would buy books for any seniors who had been deprived access to them. So far more than 400 copies of the five banned books have been provided free to these students.

With the help of Mitzi’s, on May 16, Uhle and I had a public event in support of the banned books and the teachers’ right to teach them. Almost 200 people attended. A number of students and parents and teachers spoke from the podium, but just as notable were those who didn’t. The day of the event, three teachers and librarians who had told Uhle and me that they would speak removed themselves from the roster. They were apologetic and embarrassed, but said they could not risk public exposure.

About two dozen high school students attended the event, and they were angry. “It’s just simply disrespectful,” said Colton Porter, a senior. “I voted three weeks ago, and they’re telling us what we can read?”

“Art in general is supposed to make you feel something,” said Kiran Kelly, another senior. “You’re supposed to question morals and views and other people’s points of views. And if you’re banning books, then you’re basically saying you don’t support listening to other people. You don’t support seeing other people’s points of view. And I think that’s stupid.”

Every student I met in Rapid City had a smartphone, a device known to be used to access the internet. In the age of ubiquitous online pornography, book bans are antiquated and odd, in that the instigators of such bans purport to shield young people from inappropriate material, while doing nothing to restrict students’ access to the web. But it’s unlikely that the Rapid City school board is genuinely trying to restrict what high school students see. More important is the symbolism. More important is bullying the district’s teachers away from assigning challenging books.

“I actually apologized to my students at the end of this school year, admitting to them that I didn’t think they got the best of me,” said Bubac. “I was teaching scared. I only selected safe books this year. I did as I was told by leadership. I feel sad that I did this, but until this year, I hadn’t any complaints about any books that I taught.”

When I met Jen Mueller, who teaches AP English, she was in her last few days at Central High School. She had spent 22 years at Central, but she had just accepted a job in Hill City, 25 miles away. “My new principal trusts his teachers as professionals,” she said, “and I have been overwhelmed by the welcome and support that I received at all levels of administration, including the superintendent and school board. They appear to work together and like each other — something that hasn’t been true in Rapid City for several years.”

There was little noticeable public support in Rapid City for the bans. At the May 17 school board meeting, 19 residents spoke during the public comment period. Fourteen of them — students, parents and teachers — were against the book ban. Three people, only one of them with children in the district, spoke in favor. Of the 25 teachers in the district I talked with, none had had more than one or two instances of parents objecting to texts they have taught.

I reached out to all three high school principals, none of whom answered my emails, though Talley later responded to an email from The Post and declined to address specific details. Kate Thomas provided a statement similar to the one issued by the board in May. “No book has been banned by the Rapid City Area School District,” she wrote. “Once the books were placed on the surplus list and the Board was provided a copy of the books, the Board had concerns about selling/giving the books away if the books might be considered harmful to minors, given the sexually explicit nature found in at least one of the books (pictures depicting adults engaging in sexual activity).”

Where do things go from here? It depends. The school board recently indicated that it will seek a way to discard the books without destroying them. Fine, but will the teachers of Rapid City risk another battle with their principals and school board? They might assign challenging books again, or they might, understandably, save their energy for other issues — like keeping their students and themselves safe from mass shootings.

So far there are some troubling indicators that the new school board’s posture will have long-term effects. At Central High School, there have been efforts to fill the position vacated by Mueller. In May, a candidate known by members of the English department was interviewed for the opening, and there was much excitement about hiring her. But after a group interview with teachers and Talley, in which she “knocked it out of the park,” according to one faculty member, Talley requested a second, private interview. “This was unusual,” said the candidate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article, told me. She said that the principal pressed her on her views about the book controversy and that his questions left her offended and unsettled. In the end she withdrew her candidacy and took a job two and a half hours away. (Talley declined to answer a question about the interview.)

The school board, though, continues to push ahead. Before its June 6 meeting, it circulated a new document called the “Parents/Guardians/Students Rights in Education Policy.” The document asserted that “Parents are the primary caretakers of their child’s education” and listed six rights of parents. Most of these rights had been in school materials for years, but now there was a new one, “Right #6.” It read: “Parental/guardian knowledge and consent is for ALL LGBTQ/gender identity related discussions, handouts, videos, or online/printed materials except in mandatory reporting situations.”

The board chose not to vote on the document at that meeting, but it did invite a local pastor to speak. According to two of those who attended, he talked about returning the Bible to the classroom and condemned kids who identify as trans. One of the attendees was Emily Vigil, a local fifth-grade teacher whose daughter, a high school student, identifies as trans. “It was the most bizarre spectacle I’ve ever witnessed,” Vigil said. “I was shaking, crying and looking around in complete confusion. How was this appropriate for a school board meeting?”

I asked her if she’d considered leaving teaching. “I absolutely love my school, students and families,” she said, “but I’ve thought multiple times of leaving teaching this year. The bottom line is we need the health insurance.”

Meanwhile, teachers who can leave are leaving.

On June 16, Bubac tendered her resignation. “My name and even my entire course content is being made public, which is fine,” she said, “but I know the public scrutiny will continue. I’m tired of the fear-based decision-making.” She accepted a position at Western Dakota Technical College. “I’ve heard multiple teachers on my floor and in other departments express their desire to leave their positions if they could find an alternative,” she said.

Bubac’s teaching position, along with 87 others in the Rapid City school district, remains vacant.

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