Expecting adults to file more book challenges in the 2023-24 year, a group of Nixa High School students have organized to fight against restrictions on any additional titles.
They have attended school board meetings since the flurry of challenges started in 2022, initially sitting quietly while holding copies of the books in question.
They later began to speak publicly, in larger numbers, arguing against removing books from their library.
"After seeing the rhetoric that was being conveyed on both sides, everyone seemed to be missing the point ... that it was students and librarians who were affected the most. That is what motivated me to keep working and fighting to keep books in our library," said Meghana Nakkanti, who graduated in May.
"Every group that thinks this is the hill that they need to die on or the issue that matters the most to them, it's not their library, it is not their place of employment. It doesn't really affect them other than being a culture war issue that they've heard about on social media, that someone told them to care about."
In Missouri, Nixa has become a hotspot for book challenges. There has been a sharp increase and the titles targeted and board decisions made have grabbed headlines in the Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Post, the New Yorker and the Washington Post, among others.
Four founding members of Nixa's Students Against Book Restrictions met with the News-Leader in late August. They said they're not giving up, even though many of the challenged books have been removed or restricted.
SABR founders include Nakkanti, who is now studying public health at Davidson College in North Carolina; current seniors Delilah Neff and Thomasina Brown; and current sophomore Glennis Woosley.
The group has an Instagram account, where they post regularly, and plan to keep attending school board meetings and speaking up. Currently, there are no pending or unresolved book challenges.
They support parents taking an interest in what their children are reading and making decisions about what their child can access in the classroom or library. But they oppose the parent of one child having a say in the level of access for other children.
Nakkanti, who plans to stay involved from afar, said: "Allowing one community member to have enough power to remove a book off the shelves seems like a pretty blatant overreach."
In spring 2022, in early board meetings about the book challenges, adults who addressed the board called names and made ugly comments leveled at students, other adults and high school librarians.
Students opted not to respond the same way. They chose to remain calm and reasonable.
"We have worked hard to make sure that we are known for our ideas not our behavior," Nakkanti said. "We have done a good job being civil and cordial despite how we've been treated."
Board president Josh Roberts applauded the students' approach and has spoken out in an effort to end the personal attacks. In recent meetings, comments from adults have been more respectful.
He said students initially sat in meetings with targeted books as a "silent protest" but once they started to address the board they were the "most professional, articulate, and intelligent."
"The students have done a phenomenal job at every meeting we've had. Not one of them has been disrespectful or ugly and I can't say the same for all the parents who spoke at the meetings," he said.
"Their voices have been heard"
A recent report by PEN America showed book ban attempts intensified during the 2022-23 school year. There were 3,362 books restricted — a 33% increase — as a result of parent challenges, administrative decisions and legislative proposals.
Missouri was ranked No. 3 in the nation with 333 books restricted in 14 districts, including Nixa. The most-targeted books involved themes of violence or physical abuse; included characters of color or discussed race or racism; and presented LGBTQ+ characters or themes.
The report also showed more students, like those in Nixa, have been organizing. They have spoken at meetings and staged protests to fight against removing books and changing library policies.
"Young people, in particular students, they see this for what it is and they have an incredibly powerful and important voice in all of this," said Jonathan Friedman, PEN's director of free expression and education programs. "The lesson that is being taught to them is that they need to stand up for their rights and we've been heartened to see more and more students doing so."
Woosley, 16, said she became aware of the issue in middle school but did not get involved until she started at Nixa High School. "I was like 'Oh my gosh, this is actually happening in the world and it is happening to us.'"
She said the adults who are challenging books ought to have more faith in students who will soon be graduating to pursue higher education or careers.
"We are in high school," she said. "We can put context to those books because we have been taught how to do that by those people around us who are acting like we can't."
Neff, 17, said the grass-roots student group has gained steam this year. She hopes the board will give more weight to the input of students.
"The ultimate goal is for them to not ban books anymore but a more reachable goal, in the near future, is for them to listen to our voices and treat us as equals … not lesser because we are students," she said.
Roberts said the board has been listening. "Their voices have been heard loud and clear. That is different than us doing what they want."
Nakkanti acknowledged the board is in a difficult position, trying to balance what is right for students as well as the parents and community members engaged in this issue.
"I do appreciate the fact that they do acknowledge our efforts and acknowledge what we are fighting for but words and actions are very different," she said.
The board recently decided to make student input a permanent part of meetings. To that end, the board has asked student council president Katie Fulnecky to provide regular updates on a range of topics.
Others can also sign up to address the board during the public comment period.
"Librarians don't just provide books"
The main focus of the Nixa SABR is intellectual freedom and access to books. But the group is also advocating for more transparency in how the board makes its decisions and for the library to have adequate staffing.
This year, the district reassigned one of the two high school librarians to the elementary level. The position at the high school, which serves 2,000 students, was not replaced.
"The librarians don't just provide books and provide the space for those books. They also give presentations and help students learn research skills and databases," said Nakkanti.
"We don't have enough staff, full stop. So the fact that they are moving people around during a very obvious state of need is interesting."
The board recently created a standing committee to review any books targeted for removal. In the past, separate committees came to different conclusions for books by the same author or the same series.
"We have all worked through this process and we have all learned from it," Roberts said.
Brown, a senior, said she is hopeful the standing committee will result in more consistent decision-making. "But that is a waiting game at this point."
She said there is a core group of 20-25 students who are involved in Nixa SABR and that is growing.
Brown said some classmates have said they are supportive but are too afraid to speak up. "The students believe something and the parents believe something else and they don't want to have that backlash at home, which is completely understandable."
The group primarily spreads its message through face-to-face interactions and over social media. It does not have meetings on school property.
Brown said members who have been outspoken have experienced backlash in different ways. "I've also had friends and people around me say 'We are still friends' but their parents don't like me anymore."
Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Nixa High School students form group to fight book banning attempts