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Questions remain about controversial books meant for Rapid City classrooms

Alexander Spatari
Getty Images

The Rapid City Board of Education received national attention last May, after district administrators found five books inappropriate for use in 12th grade English classes. More than 300 copies of the titles were included on a surplus list “to be destroyed.”

Administrators and principals found the titles controversial because of their subject matter. For example, “How Beautiful We Were” tells the story of an African woman battling an American oil company. “Girl, Woman, Other,” depicts lesbian and gender nonconforming characters. And “The Circle” tells the story of life in a 1984-esque dystopian society.

The school board was in the spotlight over the decision to pull the books and destroy them. Board members voted to delay any action. At a recent board meeting, a resident asked what happened to the books.

Board president Kate Thomas responded.

“Two of the books out of the five were missing," Thomas said. "Meaning they aren’t in the school buildings, and they aren’t in the warehouse.”

Later, interim board CEO Nicole Swigart offered more detail.

“They were checked into the warehouse, they absolutely were pulled from schools," Swigart said. "At the warehouse that’s a very busy place. To our best ability to figure out what happened they were placed on a palate of books being sold at auction last year. They were not given to anybody, they were not for free, we didn’t send them to any schools, but they’re no longer there.”

Swigart said the missing books are “The Circle” and “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.”

Swigart adds the district will be putting checks in place to track items going to the warehouse.

School board member Michael Birkeland, said he believes the books could have been lost in the warehouse.

“I’ve kinda heard both sides of ‘they took them away and burned them,’ and ‘they took them away and they’re handing them out to kids.’ I don’t believe either one of those things are happening," Birkeland said. "Our warehouse, they have a lot to deal with and they do a great job of dealing with it, but oftentimes things just happen.”

For now, the district is exploring how to handle the remaining books. Swigart said there are legal consequences to consider.

“We have three other sets of books," Swigart said. "We are at this time waiting for legal to let us know if it is appropriate for us to sell them to a schoolbook buyer, and if that is determined and we should have that back by the next board meeting, then they will be placed on our next book auction pallet.”

She said the legal review will answer whether they can sell the books with district information stamped inside.

Birkeland said looking back on the situation, procedure and communication is critical.

"It feels it was just a lack of communication and a few failures in policy and a few failures in procedure, that kinda just snowballed into a rough situation that was then heavily politicized," Birkeland said. "It seems like it was just a misstep after misstep after misstep, and that’s what really led to this. So, if we can make sure that we stick to those procedures, we have a controversial materials procedure. We have a procedure for picking books.”

The decision to remove the books remains controversial. Sherri Theroux, president of the South Dakota Library Association, said the book challenge is a First Amendment issue.

“What we always want to say is to give people the freedom of choice," Theroux said. "You can choose to read the book or not read it, but to take it away so that it’s not available to anyone is never the correct solution.”

Theroux encourages parents to read books for themselves before objecting to them.

“Because a lot of times what’s happening is people are getting a hold of lists of books that are – ‘these books are bad.’ There might not be an explanation of why, and the parents are bringing these lists into the schools and saying, ‘we shouldn’t have any of these books in schools,’ but they don’t know why,” Theroux said.

When questions come up about classroom teaching material, the state library association can provide support. Nancy Swenson is chair of the group’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.

“There are resources out there if you’re dealing with these challenges, and reach out to SDLA or the American Library Association to access those resources and get help in dealing with these, because its typically a pretty high stress situation,” Swenson said.

Swenson advocates for access to books and says the choice over whether to read them should be made by students and parents together.

The Rapid City school district holds its next book sale September sixth.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture