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News / Northwest

Kootenai sheriff ‘disturbed’ by library books, saying he’ll pay fines to keep them out of library

By Garrett Cabeza, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 29, 2023, 7:34am

SPOKANE — Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said he was “shocked” and “disturbed” at some of the books available to youth at local libraries, and he’s been hanging on to copies that he’d rather pay to keep than give back.

Two books in particular — “Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL” by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald and Rebecca Odes, and “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins — are sexually explicit and should be in an adult section, Norris said.

“It has nothing to do with banning books,” he said. “It has nothing to do with restricting books.”

Debates about whether certain books should be banned from libraries have raged in recent months across the country, including in North Idaho and Eastern Washington.

Cassie Robertson, communications coordinator at North Idaho’s Community Library Network, said the national debate has made life difficult for library officials.

“It’s difficult for our staff, it’s difficult for our patrons,” she said. “It has become the center of our board meetings, so it’s definitely been a challenge.”

Driven by community members’ volatility surrounding the subject, Norris visited the Hayden and Post Falls libraries earlier this year. He said he documented his Hayden Library visit in April by wearing a body camera.

“I have to say I was a little bit shocked (and) disturbed on what I found,” Norris said.

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For example, at least one page of “Deal with It!” addresses “dry humping” and includes descriptive language about oral sex.

Alexa Eccles, the director of Community Library Network, wrote in a statement that its libraries may have controversial materials, but “none are purposefully explicit, graphic, and obscene.”

The network serves eight libraries in Athol, Harrison, Hayden, Pinehurst, Post Falls, Rathdrum and Spirit Lake, as well as a mobile library.

“Community Library Network seeks to purchase a wide range of materials for community members of all ages and make decisions based on the appropriateness of subjects and styles for the intended library users,” Eccles wrote.

Robertson said the network has two copies of “Identical” and one copy of “Deal with It!”

She said the network classifies “Deal with It!” as young adult nonfiction (16 to 18 years old) and “Identical” as adult fiction (18 and older). A “child limited” minor library card, which the network made available in July, would prevent a child from checking out the books.

Robertson wrote in an email that minors must have parent or legal guardian authorization to sign up for a library card. The parent or legal guardian is responsible for all content checked out to minors.

“The Community Library Network really wanted to make this decision the parents’ choice, not the library’s choice,” Robertson said about the minor card.

“Deal with It!” was checked out in May and reached the “long overdue lost status,” according to Robertson. Robertson wrote “Deal with It!” has been checked out 42 times over the 17 years it’s been available at the Post Falls Library.

She said one copy of “Identical” is checked out and the other is on one of the library’s shelves.

Norris has a copy of each book from the Post Falls Library. He said a citizen provided him the books.

Norris said he would like to pay for the books rather than return them to the library.

Robertson said the network asks that people return books. Otherwise, there is a process the network follows to allow a patron to purchase a book.

She said a patron can fill out a form to contest a book if they find it inappropriate.

Library staff reviews the form and makes a decision, according to the network’s reconsideration of material policy. The patron can appeal the decision to the network’s board of trustees if they are unhappy with the decision. The board’s decision is final.

“We actually have a process if somebody thinks the book is inappropriate, and we take it very seriously,” Robertson said.

Peggy Orenstein, an author and known speaker on gender issues concerning teens and sex, wrote in an email that refusing to return books is a tactic pulled from organizations like Moms for Liberty, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a far-right organization that opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum and has advocated book bans.

“Those strategies are not about ‘protecting children,’ “ Orenstein wrote. “They’re part of a nationally coordinated effort to impose repressive values through so-called ‘concerned parents.’ The past two years have seen an historically unprecedented rise in book banning using that script.”

Typically, those types of organizations go after educational material about human sexuality and books that involve racism, sexism and especially LGBTQ+ issues, she wrote.

“In some communities, the book bans have become springboards for a far-right takeover of school boards and town councils,” Orenstein wrote.

According to a 2016 Young Adult Library Services Association publication, teens interviewed wanted information on sex but rarely sought out libraries for it, citing embarrassment and other factors. The teens also didn’t tend to know a library would have such books, the publication said.

Offering educational materials in a library can “provide greater privacy, diversity, and authority than information sought from formal curricular sources or informal sources alone,” the publication said.

“Overall, a more open and candid approach to sex education service provision would help to establish the library as a credible information source for this topic,” the paper suggested.

“Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL,” was listed in the top 100 of most banned books of the first decade of this century by the American Library Association.

Besides the frank talk on oral sex, it also details menstruation and, as the New York Times described in an article about the book in 1999, “virtually everything a young woman might want to know about herself, and herself in relation to others.”

“We’re trying to frame things so that girls can understand them and not be afraid of them,” Odes told the New York Times. “We think it’s always better to know what you might encounter. Not telling a girl the name of something isn’t going to keep her from doing it.”

Drill told the New York Times that the information in the book is available many other ways, but, “At least we’re trying to contextualize it in a responsible way.”

Meanwhile, Norris supported a bill, which he said would have protected children from obscene material. The Children’s School and Library Protection Act would have required public schools and community libraries to take steps to restrict children’s access to obscene or harmful material, according to the bill’s text.

The bill, which passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Brad Little earlier this year, would have allowed a parent or guardian of a child who accessed such material in violation of the policy to sue the school or library.

Norris said his main concern is what sexually explicit books and pornography can lead to.

He said teens and pre-teens exposed to inappropriate materials, like books, may decide to “experience” with other children, including family members and neighbors.

Norris said a person providing “Deal with It!” to a minor would violate Idaho statute 18-1515 about disseminating material that is harmful to minors.

Norris said parents should have the authority — to a degree — over what their children read. However, parents are providing an unfit environment for children if they allow them to watch pornography or read sexually explicit books.

“If that environment leads to that child experimenting on a neighbor or a cousin, we’re going to be looking at what type of environment that child lives in,” Norris said. “That’s where the criminal responsibility comes. You can’t just give your child alcohol or drugs without some potential criminal liability there, and this is very similar because we don’t want to expose children to sex and/or trauma at an early age, because it’s very, very harmful mentally, and the Idaho statute does cover mental trauma also.”