An Idaho school district banned books. Here’s what a student did at her graduation - East Idaho News

An Idaho school district banned books. Here’s what a student did at her graduation

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MERIDIAN (Idaho Statesman) – Annabelle Jenkins walked onto the stage during her graduation ceremony from the Idaho Fine Arts Academy in the West Ada School District with a book tucked into her sleeve.

When she stood before West Ada Superintendent Derek Bub, she slipped out the book — the graphic novel of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault — faced the audience and smiled, and handed it to Bub. It was one of 10 books the West Ada School District had removed from libraries earlier in the school year.

Bub did not take the book. Jenkins dropped it at his feet and walked off the stage without shaking his hand.

A TikTok video she posted of the incident that night garnered over 24 million views and more than 15,000 comments.

Jenkins said she’s not someone who likes to be the center of attention, but she didn’t want to shake Bub’s hand at her graduation. She said she came up with the idea as a polite but impactful way to stand up against the book removals, and encourage the administration to listen to and include more voices in their process.

“I have never desired to go viral, but if I was ever going to, I’m glad that it is for something so deeply important to me,” Jenkins told the Idaho Statesman. “More than anything, I just want people to talk about it. I want to generate conversation.”

The West Ada School District said it is committed to offering a diverse selection of books, but that Jenkins’ gesture “unfortunately overshadowed the celebratory occasion.”

“While we respect the right to voice concerns, it is important to maintain the focus on the achievements and hard work of our students during such significant milestones,” spokesperson Niki Scheppers said in an email to the Statesman.

West Ada removes 10 books

Jenkins said she decided to make a statement during her graduation after she’d spent a chunk of the year fighting for her library.

In December, the principal at Idaho Fine Arts Academy removed the graphic novel adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from the school library. At the school, which serves students in grades 6-12 and requires students to audition to attend, there wasn’t a procedure in place to “determine which students at various grade levels could access specific books,” Scheppers said.

After that, district administration reviewed the title and the review team decided the “graphic imagery contained within the novel was not suitable for the West Ada School District student population.” The district removed that book, along with nine others, from West Ada school libraries. The book removals were first reported by IdahoEdNews in December, and the committee that decided to remove the books included the chief academic officer, a middle and high school principal and an English teacher. Librarians invited to participate decided not to, according to a statement provided to EdNews at the time.

Jenkins, along with other students, had spoken out against the district’s decision to remove books from libraries without input from students and staff, and with little transparency. She sent a letter to district administration urging them to include students in the conversation and suggesting alternatives to book removals, such as having different sections for different grade levels or having a parental consent form for accessing the library, she said.

But she said the administration shut down her concerns and weren’t open to compromise.

“From there, it was a whole school year of students advocating against the removal of different books and trying to protect our libraries,” Jenkins said. “The district did not seem to care specifically about allowing students to be involved in the conversation at all.”

Book bans in libraries have ramped up across the country up in recent years as lawmakers have raised concerns about “harmful materials” in libraries. According to PEN America, which tracks book bans, more than 4,000 instances of school book bans were recorded in fall 2023, far more than the 1,800 the organization tracked in the previous spring. PEN America found instances of book bans in 42 states, and many of those removals came from complaints over books that centered around LGBTQ+ topics and race.

This year, after years of trying to pass bills targeting libraries, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill that opens libraries up to lawsuits if patrons bring concerns with books they feel are “harmful” to minors. Librarians have said the law will create a chilling effect in the state, and at least one small, rural library has opted to transition to an adults-only library — with some exceptions.

Scheppers said the West Ada School District has not removed any other books from the district’s libraries since December and the original novel of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is still available on library shelves, she said.

Other books removed from West Ada libraries in December included “A Stolen Life” by Jaycee Dugard, “Kingdom of Ash” by Sarah J. Maas and “Water for Elephants” by Sarah Gruen.

‘Dangerous road’

For Jenkins, libraries have always been an important space. She was home-schooled until high school and said she was practically raised in libraries. She loved to read and started volunteering in middle school.

“Throughout my life, I have really seen how versatile and important libraries are to the community,” she said. “It’s not only a place for self-exploration and learning. It’s also a place for connection and skill building.”

She said she’s worried about the way libraries are being treated and targeted now.

“I think it’s a really dangerous road to go down,” she said. “You don’t realize how amazing libraries are and how important they are to the health of your community until you’ve hurt them so badly.”

Before presenting the book to Bub at her graduation, Jenkins had only shared her plans with her parents. She said she was a big fan of the graphic novel adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in part because it made the book and its themes more accessible.

She said she wished the district would have listened to students and librarians and considered other ways to handle more mature content rather than remove it from the shelves completely.

Her love for libraries is guiding what she wants to do after graduation. Jenkins plans to major in English and, one day, she hopes to get her master’s in library science.