Obscene, or just objectionable? Here’s how Indiana schools are tackling library book complaints

By Casey Smith, Indiana Capital Chronicle, and Arnolt Center staff Marissa Meador, Sarita Smith, Haley Ryan, Ryan Murphy, Caroline Geib, Lizzie Wright and Lily Marks

“Garbage in, garbage out.” That’s what a Rome City resident thought of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

The complaint filed with the East Noble School Corporation told administrators the book didn’t belong on library shelves but in the trash can.

“The material is persistently racist, encourages ‘white guilt’, contains many unhealthy over-generalizations, glorifies masturbation, uses offensive gay slurs, uses the word n*gger [sic], is repeatedly sexual — including attraction to school staff, portrays Christianity in a negative light, openly mocks Jesus Christ, and thanks God for self-gratification,” the May 2023 complaint read.

But East Noble’s school board disagreed and denied the request and subsequent appeal to keep the award-winning book in the curriculum. Public records from East Noble did not say why the board opted to keep Alexie’s book.

In Indiana, it’s rare for school districts to ban books from libraries and classrooms. Since 2020, at least six districts banned books, two moved books to other libraries and 17 received complaints, according to an investigation by the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism and the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

But a new law — House Enrolled Act 1447 — opens the door to more public scrutiny of school library catalogs and has districts anticipating more challenges to what books students can read.

“I’ve heard from some parents locally that there has been some reviews and that there is some frustration with the processes some schools have created,” said Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne, who authored the legislation. “The end goal is transparency for parents and ensuring kids aren’t exposed to materials that aren’t age appropriate.”

Republican Sen. Jim Tomes, of Wadesville — who has tried to pass some version of the new law for years — authored the initial bill that the language appeared in. He declined to comment for this story.

Much of the outrage has come from conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and the Indiana chapter of Purple for Parents. A few loud fights in key cities caused the issue seem like a statewide “crisis.”

The Arnolt Center and the Indiana Capital Chronicle contacted around 440 school districts and charter schools in Indiana — 249 responded to the requests and 191 are still processing the requests.

But advocates for schools and libraries contend the issue goes beyond claims about pornography in libraries or legal defenses available in state statute. More broadly, they say the issue stems from “fundamental differences” in values and opinions over what material is “appropriate” for Hoosier youth.

Effective Jan. 1, HEA 1447 requires Indiana school districts to establish procedures for responding to complaints about library material alleged to be “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” Districts must review requests at public meetings and hear appeals if necessary. Schools must also maintain public catalogs of library materials.

Beneath the surface of the school library discourse is contention from Hoosier parents who say their local school boards have rejected their challenges of certain materials, leaving books some deem to be “obscene” and “objectionable” accessible to kids in school libraries.

Still, obscene material is already illegal under Indiana code and federal law, and material harmful to minors is unlawful for people under 18 to access. Those terms have very specific definitions in state law — with a high bar to meet.

Outlawed materials must, as a whole:

  • describe or represent, in any form, nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sado-masochistic abuse
  • appeal to the prurient interest in sex of minors
  • be patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable matter for or performance before minors
  • lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors

Librarians and other opponents of the new law maintain such materials are not — and haven’t been — present in school libraries, given that librarians already have a duty to vet what’s appropriate.

Critics have said, too, the new law will have a “chilling effect,” particularly because school librarians found in violation could be charged with a felony.

Diane Rogers, a librarian at Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center in Indianapolis and president of the Indiana Library Federation, said for the most part, the law didn’t change much for school libraries. Many Hoosier districts already had public-facing catalogues, as well as processes in place for parents to request review of books and other educational materials.

Even so, she said “it wasn’t necessary to have this bill,” noting that a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed school personnel have discretion over the content of their libraries, but can not remove books because they dislike the ideas contained in those titles.

“It’s been illegal to have those materials in libraries,” Rogers said. “Most of our decisions, we’re not really thinking in terms of obscenity because most of us were not even considering those books to begin with.”

“It seems to me that the bill has caused that chilling effect to happen already, which is what many of us were afraid of,” she continued. “By further specifying criminal charges and taking away defenses from teachers … you’re putting fear into people.”

Superintendent Derek Arrowood, of the Hamilton Heights School Corporation in Arcadia, also objected to the General Assembly’s intervention.

“The legislature pulls the trigger on whatever they do,” said Arrowood. “We’d prefer it if they did nothing and left me alone [sic]. We’ve got this – it should be a local decision.”

Districts take preemptive action in anticipation of complaints

Even before the new law took effect on Jan. 1, school districts attempted to get ahead of potential challenges.

Jim White, Superintendent of Bremen Public Schools in Bremen, said in an interview that the local library within the district recently came under fire on Facebook for circulating the book “Genderqueer,” and he worried that the anger would make its way into the schools.

“Not that we have that book, but the people start looking for anything to be unhappy about,” White said. “We were fortunate it didn’t make its way over.”

Lake Central School Corporation in Saint John and Adams Central Community Schools in Monroe reviewed lists of commonly banned books, including those from Purple for Parents and Moms for Liberty.

“I think by doing so, we did head off some of the controversy, situations other school corporations experienced,” said Adams Central Superintendent Joel Mahaffey.

Concord Community Schools in Dunlap reevaluated books subject to previous complaints and opted to require parental approval for students to check out some titles or moved books from the junior high to high school library.

Lake Central Superintendent Larry Veracco said many districts preemptively removed titles they thought would be harder to defend to be safe.

“We’re willing to fight but not when we know we’re gonna lose,” Veracco said.

The fear of challenges has administrators watching what books libraries are buying.

Arrowood, of Hamilton Heights, said the district is cautious when selecting new library materials because of political groups as well as the new law. District librarians were concerned enough that they met with the county prosecutor about the new law, he said.

“We just sat down with him and said, ‘Hey, listen, are you gonna start arresting my librarians if there’s a book in the library that somebody on one of those fringes thinks is horrible and awful?’” Arrowood said.

Rogers maintained, though, that school librarians are trained to follow best practices from the American Library Association (ALA) and use multiple professional review sources — including Kirkus and Horn Book reviews and the School Library Journal — before adding titles to their collection.

“I don’t think the new law us necessarily going to cause more books to be found to be obscene, because I am of the opinion that we don’t have obscene materials on the shelf already,” she said. “A librarian is going to make a decision for what is appropriate to be in their collection. They have a certain age group of students — so you have books that don’t come anywhere near meeting the standard of obscenity, but perhaps you choose not to purchase that book, or you choose not to have that book in your collection because it’s for older students. But mature does not mean obscene.”

Literary value staves off challenges across districts

Despite complaints, schools more often retain challenged titles, finding that the books merit places in libraries and classrooms.

Arrowood said the schools offer alternative reading to a student if a parent objects to the content of an assigned text. He said he views a required reading differently from a library book, which students can choose to read.

“We view people as coming from different places, but that also doesn’t give you the right to exclude everybody else from what we think is really good literature and a great teachable moment,” Arrowood said.

A retired teacher challenged Courtney Summers’ “All the Rage” with administrators at the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in March 2021 saying the book was inappropriate. The district ruled against banning the book because of its numerous awards and honors, including the American Library Association Young Adult Award, but did limit access as the title is labeled age appropriate for grades 10 through 12.

At Rush County School Corporation, there were two parents who expressed concern over the book “Making Bombs for Hitler,” by Marsha Skrypuch, but neither filed a formal complaint. Out of precaution, Rachel Monk, the corporation’s media specialist, researched the book and verified that it was appropriate for children ages 8-12, and the book was not removed.

MSD Southwest Allen County Schools received a review request for “Anya’s Ghost,” by Vera Brosgol in October 2021, but documents did not detail the reason for the challenge. The review committee wrote that the book has a darker theme but is appropriate for young adults and decided to keep the book in circulation.

Not all school districts explicitly require review committee members to read a work in its entirety, according to policies reviewed by the Arnolt Center. Although that runs counter to the “harmful” and “obscene” evaluation criteria laid out in state code, schools retain the ability to take down or move books for other reasons, like age-appropriateness, and can additionally prevent just some students from checking out particular materials.

Timelines for the review and appeal process also vary. Garrett-Keyser-Butler, in Dekalb County, requires that committees report their recommendations to superintendents within five business days of their formation, whiles southwestern Indiana’s Washington Schools allows up to 120 business days.

Further, board policies vary on whether materials can remain available to students during the consideration process. In districts with longer timelines that also allow withdrawal during the reconsideration process, materials could become unavailable to students for months while they are debated.

Lake Central’s process requires complainants to say if they’ve read the book, can summarize it, list positives, list the objectionable material and its risks to students, and describe the teacher’s purpose in assigning the book. The district’s policy also offered a teacher response form.

Veracco, of Lake Central, said a parent complained about “The Berlin Boxing Club,” which was assigned reading, citing a passage when the main character says a goal was “to get in someone’s pants.” The book is about a Jewish child living in Germany amid the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

Veracco said he did not believe that a single passage could overwhelm the value of the book.

“And that’s really what librarians across the country are saying, right,” he said. “You need to look at the piece in its totality.”

Rogers pointed to the ALA, which recommends that challenged materials be kept available to students during the review process.

“However, that is something that’s locally-controlled,” she said.

Districts expect more complaints, challenges

Superintendent Ralph Shrader, of the Metropolitan School District of Warren County in Williamsport, said legislators viewed the issue of reviewing library books as important but the topic isn’t a top priority.

“Those kinds of things to us aren’t very pressing in the realm of education,” he said.

But the law has opened the door for districts to deal with increased challenges.

Veracco said now people can view the library catalogs and look for books they don’t like. He said his concern is that people from outside the district will initiate complaints despite the law saying formal requests must be from either parents or district residents.

Greg Walker, superintendent of Paoli Community School District, said while he has not yet received any complaints, he fears the new legislation will invite out-of-state groups to dig through online catalogs and find books to challenge.

“What really concerns me is that someone from outside of my school district, someone in another state, could challenge a book that we have and they don’t even have children that go here, and I don’t think that is right,” Walker said.

Carbaugh said lawmakers are monitoring how the new law rolls out across the state and suggested changes could come in the future. No such bills are pending in the current legislative session, though.

“For now, it may be too early to know what tweaks, if any, are necessary to the current law,” he said. “As schools continue to refine protocol, I think we’ll all be watching and gathering information from parents and educators.”

Casey Smith is a reporter with the Indiana Capital Chronicle. Ryan Murphy, Lizzie Wright, Haley Ryan, Caroline Geib, Sarita Smith, Marissa Meador and Lily Marks are students with the Arnolt Center.

This story was written by journalists at the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University in partnership with the Indiana Capital Chronicle.