The story of Rio Rancho High School pulling the Gilbert Hernandez graphic novel “Palomar” from their library due to a parent challenging it as “child pornography” has received a fair amount of attention since it broke last February. We’ve covered it several times on this site.
But new facts have come to light.
Specifically, internal RRSD emails obtained by request from the Custodian of Records pursuant with New Mexico open records law (N.M. Stat. Secs. 14-2-1 to 14-2-12). These emails cover the period from February 26th through April 4th, and while the activity over this challenge continues to this day, those dates give us a look inside the RRHS camp before, during, and after the review committee’s deliberation and decision on “Palomar.”
A note before we begin: this article would not have been possible without the help of Rita Daniels. A reporter for NPR station KUNM out of Albuquerque, NM, she originally requested these emails & documents from RRSD, and later passed them on to me to help in my reporting. You can listen to her coverage of this story over at KUNM. My sincerest thanks for her diligence and generosity.
The Inciting Incident
On the morning of Thursday, February 26th, Catrenna Lopez showed up at Rio Rancho High School with her bookmarked copy of “Palomar”, ready to have it pulled from the library catalog. Librarian Brenna McCandless relayed an account of the meeting to Principal Richard VonAncken that afternoon (emphasis her’s):
We had a parent come in today with a graphic novel (Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez) that her student had checked out. It looks like it was purchased in 2006 or earlier and has only been checked out once before, but the content is quite adult. The parent has the book at the moment, but I’ve already removed it from the collection because it’s definitely not something we should have…
I already spoke with the mother and let her know I shared her concern and thanked her for bringing it to our attention so that we could rectify the situation.
We’re currently going through the graphic novel collection by hand just to make sure nothing else has slipped through the cracks, so if she wants to know what else is being done, we’re taking care of it.
Vice Principal Sherri Carver later describes the meeting with Lopez:
On Thursday, February 26, Ms. Lopez brought the book first to the principal’s secretary and then to the librarian where we had a discussion about the content of the book. The book does not fit with the current selection policy in place at Rio Rancho Public Schools and is aimed at a higher age level than we purchase for (Library Bill of Rights Policy 425: “to provide materials that will enrich and support the curriculum, taking into consideration the varied interests, abilities, and maturity levels [bolding mine] of the pupils served).
(As this was in response to a press inquiry and I can’t find any other corroboration that Carver was there in person, I believe the ‘we’ mentioned refers to the school, as opposed to Carver and McCandless themselves.)
As most of the RRHS administration was away or unavailable to meet with Lopez that day, a meeting was scheduled for the following Monday. She must have then decided this matter could not wait, because she proceeded to take her case directly to KOAT Channel 7 News.
KOAT contacted the school that afternoon and asked about the book. Spokeswoman Kim Vesely later admitted to telling KOAT the content in “Palomar” was “clearly inappropriate and the book had been removed (a mistake, but with all the key players out of town, I and others forgot the decision is subject to review).” Armed with that nugget, KOAT aired an incredibly biased and inflammatory report that same evening. This report went viral on various comics blogs & newsfeeds the next day while RRHS prepared for a storm of controversy.
Interestingly enough, the first few responses they received were ones of support. Both the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship had sent emails to the school by the next morning, offering advice and “a ton of experience successfully helping librarians combat these kinds of allegations tied to book challenges.” (No replies to these inquiries were included in the released emails.) In fact, there were also no references to the school receiving negative comments or feedback of any kind from the Rio Rancho community at large.Continued below
Lopez did eventually meet with the school as planned on March 2nd, where she relinquished control of the book to VonAncken, who then proceeded to lock the book in his office.
We’ve Got Rules For This Sort Of Thing
That same day, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund issued a press statement denouncing both the egregious KOAT broadcast and RRHS’s swift capitulation to the accusations, ignoring the specific procedures laid out in their own policies for dealing with exactly this kind of parental request. RRPS Policy #425, the one pertaining to challenges against library materials, states that:
Review of questioned (“challenged”) materials will be treated objectively, unemotionally, and as a routine matter. Criticisms of print and non-print materials must be submitted in writing on a Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials form obtained from the librarian at the library/media center where the material is housed and submitted to the Superintendent of schools. The Request must be signed and include specific information as to author, title, publisher, and definite citation of objection.
A Review Committee will be appointed by the Superintendent to determine the validity of the objection. The Committee shall include the superintendent or designee as chairperson, eight other persons to include three members from the community and four educators, and a library media specialist from the appropriate level.
While the materials are under reconsideration, they shall remain in circulation in the library media center, unless the Superintendent decides otherwise.
Appeals of the decision by the Review Committee may be made through the Superintendent to the Rio Rancho Board of Education for a final decision.
According to RRPS policy, by this point there should be a written request submitted, a 9-person committee forming, and the work should still be in circulation barring a decision to the contrary by the Superintendent.
According to the released RRPS emails, by this point there was no request, no committee, and “Palomar” was so far out of circulation that if there was any way to get it even farther away, outside of, say, burning it, one would be hard-pressed to think of it.
To my knowledge, the March 2nd CBLDF release contained the first public mention and explanation of Policy #425. My learning about that policy was not only important in my personal understanding of what should have been happening, but as it turns out, could very well have kicked off everything that happened after March 2nd. But explaining how that could be true requires a slightly personal, and definitely surreal, tangent.
I didn’t see the KOAT news piece until March 1st. By the 2nd, I’d emailed my editor and asked him if anyone else on the site was going to cover it, because otherwise I had an angry editorial building in me that I had to get out. He said the coast was clear and gave me his blessing (thanks, Brian!). It wasn’t until I actually had to write the thing that I wondered how I could make this different than just another guy on another soapbox.
So that evening I sent emails to not only the obvious comics-friendly choices, Fantagraphics and the CBLDF, but to KOAT News and RRSD (via their contact form).
The first two responded later that night, as I had hoped they would. Vesely had my message forwarded to her on the 4th, when she then replied to me with a brief note asking for the nature of my questions. Not wanting to give this open door any chance to close, I sent off my full list of six questions later that evening, including this question specifically referencing Policy #425:
By the 26th an internal school decision had been made (by “officials” who “agreed [“Palomar”]’s clearly inappropriate”) without following the school board’s own procedure…Does the school board have, at this point, any intention of forming the committee its own policy requires for such matters? If so, what is the best way for the community of Rio Rancho High parents to follow that committee’s formation and findings?
Rounding Up The Committee
I didn’t send those questions until after midnight EST, so Vesely wouldn’t have seen them until the morning of the 5th. At which point, all hell broke loose.Continued below
Thursday, March 5th
- 12:03pm: Vesely forwards my 6-question inquiry to Associate Superintendent Carl Leppelman.
- 12:30pm: Leppelman requests Carver and RRPS Exec. Director LaJuana Coleman put together a “Palomar” review committee ASAP. The form requesting removal from Lopez has not been completed and apparently “it is not prudent” to have it done so at this point. Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland has removed “Palomar” pending the committee’s decision.
- 2:10pm: Special Asst to the Superintendent Marilyn Lake-DellAngelo manages to use Amazon to see how much their edition of “Palomar” is going for on the aftermarket; jokingly(?) suggests selling it.
- 2:39pm: Coleman asks Leppelman for clarification, as this is the first she is hearing of it.
- 3:13pm: Carver forwards my questions to McCandless for answering. Interestingly, only 5 of the 6 are included; the one listed above regarding Policy #425 is missing from the email.
- 3:24pm: Carver tells Coleman she will bring her up to speed. “We have removed the Palomar book from circulation and it should not be reconsidered. If there needs to be a committee, then I can round up one.”
Friday, March 6th
- 7:46am: Carver sends answers for my questions to Coleman.
- 8:25am: Coleman is still unclear about committee necessity: “It appears that the book is off the shelf, answers have been provided and case closed, unless I am missing something. Please advise.”
- 10:39am: Leppelman clarifies: “Yes, it has been taken off the shelves but RRPS did not follow our board policy in doing so. Dr. C. directed me to follow the process and submit a recommendation from the committee to determine if it should be removed permanently.”
- 12:40pm: I followup with Vesely; no response.
Monday, March 9th
- A letter is sent to Superintendent Cleveland from the NCAC’s Kids Right to Read Project, reiterating “Palomar”‘s literary merit and the school responsibility to following its own procedures in this matter. The letter is co-sponsored by the CBLDF and several other anti-censorship organizations.
- 3:30pm: Coleman puts out the call for committee members. Meeting date is set for Monday, March 16th at 3:00 pm. According to Coleman, “I don’t believe it will take more than 30 minutes of your time.”
Tuesday, March 10th
- 8:19am to 9:24am: Teacher Joel Salisbury tells teacher & committee member Elaine Gonzalez he had not “seen or read the book, and it’s doubtful that the objector has actually read the book either. Unfortunately, KV has already opined on KOAT that the book was “clearly inappropriate”. Well, that certainly makes the committee’s work more difficult, doesn’t it?!” He also forwards her several “Palomar”-related links.
- 3:38pm: Vesely replies to my inquiry. “A committee review of the book is being held next week per district policy…The book is currently out of circulation pending the committee review.”
I can’t speak for the entire comics community, but the collective feeling outside RRHS at this time back in March had to be one of relief. It certainly was for me; instead of being quickly dropped into a library black site, “Palomar” would have its day in court and be exonerated. How could it not? Policy #425 calls for a review conducted “objectively, unemotionally, and as a routine matter.” But in going back over the emails now, my confidence was sorely misplaced. There didn’t seem to be much objectivity to spare for “Palomar.”
Or even much knowledge of its contents. Nowhere in the almost 200-page PDF of released emails is there any mention of anyone reading the actual book (or even excerpts) as a requirement for the meeting, or raise the idea that the meeting should be scheduled with enough lead-time for anyone to reasonably do so. True, this particular omnibus edition of “Palomar” was out-of-print, but the material contained in it was and is readily available through newer print collections or digitally through Comixology. No request was made to Fantagraphics to provide review copies or any such material. Maybe if Lake-DellAngelo spent a little less time checking the book’s asking price on Amazon and a little more time on research…
I Knows It When I Sees ItContinued below
Lopez did go back to RRHS and fill out the required Request for Reconsideration of Library/Media Materials form on March 12th, well after the fact. But nothing else about this had gone according to the rules, so why should this be any different? At least now the committee would have a record of specific instances in the 522-page book to consider and debate, right?
Lopez’s specific list of objectionable material in the book (without citing exact pages/panels as expressly required by Policy #425)?
Sexual graphics, prostitution, child pornography, child abuse, explicit sexual scenes, nudity
The harm Lopez feels a person reading this material would be subjected to?
We are teaching ours (sic) children that you should not have sex before marriage, child abuse and child pornography are bad, and prostitution is degrading but this book promotes what we say are (sic) wrong.
Lopez’s opinion if there was anything good in this material?
The form also requests the submitter name a replacement work of similar medium that would cover the same informational ground in less offending terms. That part, surprisingly, was left blank.
Any Last Words From The Deceased…I Mean, The Defendant?
The charges now officially established, the committee met at 3pm on March 16th. McCandless brought the copy of “Palomar” from its locked room, along with “several reviews printed out for the panel” and the NCAC/CBLDF letter to Cleveland. The meeting agenda listed four items: review of Policy #425, review of evidence, discussion, and recommendation & decision.
Attending the meeting were eight of the nine selected members: Coleman (as Cleveland’s designee), Carver, McCandless, Gonzalez, teacher Amanda Bader, non-RRHS Librarian Ann McGinley, community member Theresa Harmer, and teacher Leslie Keeney. The ninth, community member Jo Ann Wondra, had to cancel that morning due to an unrelated matter. Several emails refer to trying to find a substitute but to no avail.
The meeting was:
- Closed to the public,
- Lasted over an hour (according to RRPS Spokeswoman Beth Pendergrass) without minutes being taken,
- Took its vote by anonymous ballot, and
- Returned a 5-3 decision in favor of keeping “Palomar” in the high school library.
Speaking about “Palomar” in a broader sense:
The committee discussed these concerns at length and found no evidence of the “child pornography or child abuse.” The adult themes are made more obvious by the format of the book and the images are powerful, however, the power of the graphic novel is the combination of the story and the images.
Palomar is a novel with substantive themes, plots, and story lines, which provides the reader opportunities for thoughtful discussion and reflection on important issues. School libraries have large collections of fiction with the hopes that students will check out books not only to use in research, but to read on their own…
Providing students with opportunities to read, even controversial materials, is required under RRHS School Board Policy 425 … The opinion of the majority of the committee is that Palomar, in spite of its depiction of adult sexual themes, does meet the standard of RRPS School Board Policy 425 Library Bill of Rights.
To remove Palomar from the library would give one person undue authority to determine what is appropriate in a library…A majority of the committee concluded that the overall value of the book and the importance of protecting the right to read and the right for public high school libraries to provide a comprehensive collection takes precedence over censorship by a single individual.
After considerable discussion, the committee vote determined the book should remain catalogued at Rio Rancho High School.
Given the committee’s decision, one would think Coleman, Carver, Vesely, McCandless, and the rest would feel vindicated their implied approval (if not actually held belief) of “Palomar”‘s worth was upheld.
One would be wrong, judging from a post-meeting email exchange between VonAncken and Carver:
- V: Don’t beat yourself up over this. No matter which way it went, it was going to be a controversy anyway.
- C: Yes, and it is my opinion that Dr. C may overturn the committee’s decision as well.
- V: I hope she does. Continued below
Since the votes were cast by anonymous ballot, there is no record of who voted which way. But based on the email statements leading up to the meeting, I’d score this decision as Carver, Coleman, McCandless for removing “Palomar” and the rest in favor of keeping it. Interesting that, theoretically, the administrators were for removal and the instructors were for retention.
If the voting did play out that way, it would mean there was a librarian voting for either side of the argument, which I wouldn’t have expected going in. I also didn’t expect Policy #425 to be used both against AND for removing “Palomar” (as Carver used the ‘maturity level’ line from it in her earlier justification), so there are surprises all around.
Did Wondra’s absence give one side an advantage? We love “what if’s?” in comics, but this one is truly hard to decipher.
As a community member, Wondra would not have had the administration’s bias to rush to a removal decision to end the matter quickly. And having McGinley, another librarian, there making pro-“Palomar” points might have canceled out McCandless’s librarian’s critique. Teachers giving testimony about the maturity level of the kids they see in class every day might have carried more weight than points from an administration removed. She might have made the final tally 6-3.
Or she could have sided with the administration and convinced Harmer to go their way and it could have ended up 5-4 against “Palomar”.
Again, this is all conjecture on my part. Informed conjecture, but conjecture all the same.
What Did We Do Now?
The remaining emails released cover the internal back & forth over specific wording in the committee’s official decision statement (sent to Lopez via certified mail but not widely released, as far as I can tell), as well as several responses afterwards from myself, Daniels, KOAT News, KRQE News, and Peter Hart from the NCAC regarding that statement or general followup.
Vesely emailed Lake-DellAngelo the evening of the 16th to inquire about several questions regarding the validity of that afternoon’s meeting:
This whole situation has created somewhat of a furor with free speech advocates in the press, first from a columnist from Multiversity Comics who asked if we were following our policy, and then as I understand it, on various communications channels in the comics industry. I told the reporter in question only that a committee would be convened and it would meet this week. But now, we’ve been contacted by two mainstream media outlets this afternoon – I have not responded to either – contending – in one case in pretty strong terms and quoting the president of FOG — that the committee’s meeting was not publicly noticed and not open to the public and therefore violates the Open Meetings Act.
…And finally, this one not legal but more in the court of public opinion – is the process to date a sword we want to die on? Or if we have to reconvene the committee anyway on technical grounds [such as only having eight of the nine required attendees], should we just do it in public in the interest of transparency?
Those “pretty strong terms” came from Rita Daniels emailing that “because the committee will be discussing the fate of the book and formulating a binding policy for the material, under law (the Open Meetings Act), it has to be discussed in an open forum.”
The school released a statement regarding the decision on March 26th. In addition to mentioning the decision itself, the statement clarifies the meeting’s exemption from the Open Meetings Act: “As the committee is not statutorily-created, does not include a quorum of the school board, and does not take actions that are final, the committee’s meetings are not subject to the provisions of the Open Meetings Act.”
The statement also makes clear what the appeal process would entail: “The committee’s opinion may be appealed through the Superintendent to the RRPS Board. The final decision rests with the Board of Education. If an appeal is filed, it would be considered by the board in a duly-noticed public meeting in accordance with the Board’s Open Meetings Policy 130 and the Open Meetings Act, NMSA 1978 Section 10-15-1, et seq.”Continued below
Lopez told KRQE News on March 26th she would appeal the committee’s decision, making comments comparing the book to Hustler. “I’m not saying [Hernandez]’s not a great author,” Lopez explained in Daniels’ NPR report. “I’m saying that it’s not appropriate for a public school library.”
Daniels notes in her story last week that Lopez said she has appealed the decision with the Superintendent. RRPS officials have stated they have not received an appeal from Lopez in writing.
Pendergrass confirmed with Daniels that “Palomar” will continue to be catalogued in the RRHS library, but “we will ask that any student under 18 wishing to check the book out receive parent permission.”
No other book in the library has carried or currently carries such a caveat.
There is no “restricted” section for such a book to be physically shelved in the RRHS library.
The school’s sole copy of “Palomar” is still locked away in Von Ancken’s office, where it will presumably still be when classes resume on August 12th.