Education officials from Essex County voted by an overwhelming majority to recommend that the New Jersey School Boards Association adopt an official position against banning certain books from public schools.
The 14-3 decision rendered by the Essex County School Boards Association on Sept. 27 was put to a vote ahead of the national Banned Books Week at the start of October, said a statement released by the ECSBA last week. But more broadly, the recommendation marks educators' latest move amid contentious battles in school districts across the U.S. where advocates seek to block curriculums and library books they say have superseded parental oversight with topics they deem inappropriate for minors, or better left to a parent's tutelage.
But the ECSBA argues that the matter is one of "safeguarding academic freedom and the diversity of thought in our schools," as stated in its announcement.
"By passing this resolution, we are taking a stand against censorship and ensuring that our students have access to a wide range of perspectives that reflect the complexities of our world," said ECSBA President Reginald Bledsoe.
On Friday, Bledsoe was unable to name specific parents or groups advocating for book bans in any Essex County school district.
But a few miles to the west, Morris County's Roxbury Township has become a local epicenter for the national discussion over what themes should be accessible to students at the high school library. The tenacious and long-running fight has embroiled parents, school board officials and even a school librarian in the battle over "parental rights," as declared by those opposed to certain topics, most notably LGBTQIA issues.
Statewide association's next move
Since the ECSBA announced its decision, the statewide association has received an influx of concerns, which NJSBA spokesperson Janet Bamford has described as "misperceptions," regarding the significance of the Essex organization's Oct. 4 vote.
Despite worries from residents that the decision has brought to bear an official rule regulating whether a book may be banned from public schools, the vote merely recommends that the NJSBA's delegate assembly "adopt a belief statement in support of access to educational information and in opposition to book bans" by way of resolution, said Bamford, who did not immediately respond to a request for further details regarding concerns the public had raised with the NJSBA.
If approved by the delegate assembly on Dec. 2, the resolution would be enshrined in the state organization's Manual of Policies and Positions on Education, which ― among other uses ― informs whatever stance the NJSBA may take on bills being considered by state lawmakers.
The draft resolution recommended by Essex County refers to book bans as the "suppression of ideas and information" in violation of the First Amendment, and suggests "the NJSBA has a responsibility to stand against activities that undermine the rule of law and infringe upon fundamental rights and freedoms."
For now, the resolution remains under review by an NJSBA subcommittee.
Meanwhile, the war over acceptable texts rages on in Roxbury, where parents and other advocates have called for the removal of 11 books from the high school library, many of which, but not all, discuss gender and sexual identity.
Among the controversial books are a poetry collection by author Rupi Kapur that examines "violence, love, loss" and healing, as well as Jesse Andrews' "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," a novel about a pair of high school boys who befriend a girl recently diagnosed with leukemia, as reported previously by the Daily Record.
One local parent, Janet Hagen, condemned the embattled texts, saying they contain "explicit filth," during a school board meeting in June, according to the Daily Record, which is published by NorthJersey.com.
The debate in Roxbury grew so heated that high school librarian Roxana Russo Caivano filed suit against a group of parents in April, alleging they had "defamed her character" with accusations that she allowed pornography into the library's collection.
Meanwhile, opponents of such bans argue that the issue is not about accepting the books, but the very people whose identities they depict."The strength of our education system lies in its diversity and inclusivity," said Bledsoe, the ECSBA president.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ education group considers taking stand against book bans