Board of Education votes 'no' on rule impacting content in school libraries

March 8, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

State Board of Education
The State Board of Education voted 5-3 against a proposed rule change that would have impacted the content allowed in school libraries. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

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The State Board of Education voted against starting the rule change process for board member Kirk Penner’s proposal to prohibit sexually explicit materials in school libraries and remove the requirement to buy a minimum number of new books every year.

Three members voted for the proposal, including Board President Elizabeth Tegtmeier and members Sherry Jones and Penner. The remaining five voting against it included Board Vice President Deborah Neary and members Patsy Koch Jones, Lisa Fricke, Patti Gubbels, Jacquelyn Morrison.

All of the board members said they don’t support sexually explicit content in schools. Penner said it’s the board’s job to make sure sexually explicit content doesn’t end up in school libraries.

“The State Board of Education has direct influence and specifies what should be taught in local school districts,” he said. “Offering sexually explicit content to our minor children, in my opinion, is not a local control decision.”

Those who voted against the rule change disagreed with Penner, saying it should be up to local districts and school boards.

Koch Johns said this proposal could give too much power to any Nebraskan that has an issue with a book. The rule change stated that any Nebraska taxpayer would be able to complain about a book to a school superintendent, and if it wasn’t resolved to the taxpayer's satisfaction, they could go to the Nebraska Department of Education.

“If we say that one parent can go to the school board and say ‘I don’t want this book in this school,’ then we are giving more than local control,” Koch Jones said. “It can’t be that. If it happens to that, one parent gets to decide what all the kids learn and do? No, we have to respect the fact that educators together have experience and knowledge and education.”

Morrison said part of her decision to vote against the revisions was informed by her work as a public defender.

“I will tell you that nine out of the ten cases that we saw at the public defender’s office were parents or relatives raping their children,” Morrison said. “It was not a kid that saw a book and read a book and then went out and committed a crime. That’s not how it happens.”

Morrison also shared concerns about the process with this rule change. She said the board doesn’t typically vote on whether or not to start discussions on a rule change and that there’s a process for board members to review certain rules in committee discussions.

Currently, rule changes go through a process where the revisions have a public hearing before being brought to the board for a vote. Next, it goes to the Attorney General for approval. Then the governor approves or doesn’t approve the changes.

Right now, there are changes to Rule 10 — which includes the library rules — waiting to be approved by the governor. New revisions cannot start the process until the current revisions are signed.

Board member Sherry Jones said Friday’s vote could have put the rule change on the right track to continue discussion in the Rules and Regulation committee. She said one reason she voted for the proposal was because students don’t need access to sexually explicit content, even if there is more to the book than one explicit scene.

“Unfortunately, porn doesn’t disappear if you read the whole book,” Jones said.

Tegtmeier said she supported the proposal because she's seen research that shows the effects sexually explicit materials can have on students.

"If we truly care about the mental health crises, and I know we do, I know each one of us do, and it's affecting youth," Tegtmeier said. "I feel like it's imperative that we follow the professional knowledge and expertise of the mental health specialists."

Gubbels said that the mental health crises is a complex situation that isn't only due to materials that students are exposed to.

The final vote against the proposal came after two hours of public testimony that featured emotional arguments from both sides. There were 175 written comments submitted.

The board received an update on the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program. The Nebraska Department of Education will assist the Department of Health and Human Services with the implementation of the summer EBT program. Gov. Jim Pillen initially chose to not opt-in to the federal initiative, but changed his mind in February after talking with students.

NDE will be responsible for communicating with schools, developing and maintaining data collection, sharing the system for issuing summer EBT cards, finalizing the application and verifying student eligibility. DHHS will take on the bulk of the program, including contracting with a card vendor, issuing cards to households with eligible students, investigating fraud and completing federal fiscal reporting.

Kayte Partch, assistant administrator for the Office of Coordinated Student Support Services at NDE and the director of child nutrition programs, said there are about 150,000 Nebraska students that are eligible for free or reduced price meals and could apply for the summer EBT program.

The board proclaimed April as the Month of the Military Child, with April 15 being Purple Up! For Military Kids Day. Nebraskans are encouraged to wear purple to show support for military children on that day.