Kansas Schools to Parents: You can Keep Tabs on what your Kids Check out from our Libraries

Wichita, Kan. — The American Library Association takes a hard line on privacy. Even kids, it contends, ought to be able to check out a book without someone looking over their shoulders.

“All people, regardless of origin, age, background, or views, possess a right to privacy and confidentiality in their library use,” the group declares in its Library Bill of Rights.

“It’s kind of Rule No. 1,” said Rachel Yoder, president of the Kansas Association of School Librarians. “You can’t have intellectual freedom without privacy. … But there’s an added twist to it, as a school librarian.”

That twist? School library histories are part of a student’s educational record. Parents can see those records.

The Goddard school district, west of Wichita, recently emailed families with step-by-step instructions for how to view their children’s library history, going back as many as 500 titles.

Officials said the district’s library software has given parents online access to their children’s records for years. But recent, high-profile book challenges prompted the reminder.

“Parents have always had access to review curriculum, to know what the books are that are in our libraries,” said district spokesman Dane Baxa. “This just gives them access to that information.”

Last fall, the Goddard district removed more than two dozen library books from circulation in school libraries after a parent complained about some titles. Administrators quickly reversed the decision after receiving national pushback from authors and free speech advocates.

But those school officials pledged to review the district’s vetting process for library materials.

In the recent email to families, Goddard school librarians touted the district’s Destiny Library management system as a way to collaborate and partner with parents. The district also posts library catalogs for all Goddard schools on its website.

“We encourage you to periodically check your child’s Destiny Library account to spark conversations about books and what your child is reading,” the email said.

The Destiny software is used by many Kansas school districts, including Wichita, Topeka, and Shawnee Mission.

Follet School Solutions, which owns and distributes Destiny, announced plans earlier this year to beef up parental controls, including a feature that would alert parents each time their child checked out a book and would let them limit their child’s access to materials they deemed inappropriate.

Officials pointed to new parents’ rights measures in Florida, Texas and Georgia, where school districts are scrambling to comply with parental notification requirements.

But the company walked that plan back after an outcry from librarians, educators and authors, who said that those monitoring tools could invade the privacy of vulnerable students, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.

Sara Moesel, assistant director of the Mulvane Public Library, said many students assume — incorrectly — that their school library history is confidential.

Library workers in K-12 schools are bound by federal laws, such as the Family Educational Rights Act (FERPA), that those in public libraries might not be. Compare that to the Mulvane Public Library’s privacy policy, which says patrons can’t access or use another person’s account without that person or the card being present. “This includes parental access to juvenile cards,” the policy says.

“Unless the (school) librarians have been telling them all along, ‘Hey, your parents have access to these records. Just be aware,’ it just becomes a real risk for children who are in vulnerable situations,” she said.

Moesel, a lesbian, said she experienced that fear as an adolescent when she read queer-themed books but didn’t want her family to know. She worries about children in similar situations.

“Maybe I’m going to encounter verbal abuse at home. Maybe I’m going to risk homelessness,” she said. “There are real serious consequences to what’s essentially doxxing.”

The free speech group PEN America has reported a massive spike in book bans and challenges nationwide. A report released in April showed that the majority of books being targeted involve race, racism, sexual orientation or gender identity.

In Kansas last school year, parents made a number of attempts to remove certain books from school libraries, including districts in Salina, Derby and the Kansas City area.

Yoder, the Kansas Association of School Librarians president, said parents have always had the right to know about their child’s education and to weigh in on the curriculum. But the recent political battles around books have been disheartening to her.

“It’s a hard time to be a school librarian. We’re trying to meet a lot of different needs,” she said. “As educators, we want to do our best to provide a safe and protective environment for all students. … It’s a hard line to walk.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.