Graphic novel removed from North Medford HS

·5 min read

Apr. 22—The Medford School District removed this week all copies of the graphic novel adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" from its collections as a result of a parent who filed a complaint requesting action be taken.

Natalie Hurd, the district's communications and community engagement director, wrote in an email that the complainant cited "images of nudity, sexual assault and suicide" in the 2019 adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood's award-winning 1985 novel.

Hurd wrote that once the complaint — stemming from the book being on the shelves at the North Medford High School library — was received, a committee of two certified librarians and other school officials convened, per district policy, and "determined the graphic novel does not meet the needs of the school nor the needs of individual students."

Now that two English and one Spanish copy of the graphic novel — all at North Medford — were removed, district officials are "working with a team of stakeholders to review our graphic novel selection and shelving procedures," Hurd wrote.

While the graphic novel has been removed from circulation in the district, the original version of the book remains, she added.

Once the parent issued the complaint, a report on it was also sent to the Oregon Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, which regularly consults with school libraries on the subject of banned books. A member of that committee reached out to the Mail Tribune to inform the outlet of the graphic novel's removal from the high school.

The co-chairs of the committee penned a letter this week to Medford Schools Superintendent Bret Champion asking for numerous records, including documentation of policies allowing for removal of literature, an explanation for the decision to remove "The Handmaid's Tale" and "current status" of the graphic novel.

The classic novel features a female character named "Offred," who narrates the story of a strict hierarchical society known as The Republic of Gilead. Offred is one of many females known as "handmaids" in the alternate reality, producing offspring for the ruling class of men called "commanders."

The graphic novel version, meanwhile, has been the subject of controversy and has led some school districts — including ones in Kansas and Texas — to pull the book from its shelves in some fashion late last year.

Atwood has publicly criticized those decisions, along with another author, Art Spiegelman, who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, "Maus," which has also been banned by numerous school districts.

Hurd cited district policies on "Instructional Resources/Instructional Materials" (code IIA) and "Library Materials Selection and Adoption" (code IIAC) as rationale for the committee's decision to remove the graphic novel version of "The Handmaid's Tale" from all school collections.

Policy IIA touches not only on materials used in the classroom, but ones in libraries. Such materials will be "selected cooperatively" by administrators and librarians, but "sometimes with the assistance of" students and parents, according to the policy, which goes on to say that materials in the library shall be free of discrimination.

Policy IIAC says parents and students may consult with a librarian, superintendent or designee when deciding which materials to purchase for school libraries — and use discretion for materials to be removed.

"To maintain a current and highly usable collection of materials, the media specialist will provide continuing renewal of the collection, not only by addition of up-to-date materials, but by the elimination of materials which no longer meet needs," policy IIAC states.

In noting the policies, Hurd said the district supports the Library Bill of Rights and the Statement on Intellectual Freedom, among other things.

"We believe that the district has exercised proper care and judgment in making this decision in accordance with Board policy IIA," she wrote.

When noted by the Mail Tribune that the policies don't focus a lot on removal of books, Hurd responded, "While the policies aren't specifically related to removal of books, we do have a process in place to review parent/public complaints. Presently, illustrated books and graphic novels are selected based on the same criteria as traditional print content."

The Intellectual Freedom Committee said its letter, penned late Monday by Oregon public school librarians Emily O'Neal and Perry Stokes, was intended to inform the Medford School District of ways their group could help them in such matters.

Stokes and O'Neal, who co-chair the Intellectual Freedom Committee, stated in their letter that the committee's role is to not only consult with school officials throughout the state on the subject of banned books, but work with them to "ensure that each step of the district's written policy for reconsideration is followed."

Stokes and O'Neal then cited case law to make the point that "when a school fails to follow its own policies and procedures for reviewing a challenged book, it raises the presumption that the school's motivations are unconstitutional."

"Passages or parts of the work in question should not be pulled out of context," Stokes and O'Neal wrote. "The values and faults of the library material should be weighed against each other, and the opinions based on the materials as a whole and in consideration of the criteria for the school."

A representative for the committee said it would not be commenting further on the matter until the Medford School District responds to their request for records.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.