October 06, 2023

Clyde-Savannah educators push to uphold intellectual freedom

Author: Molly Belmont
Source:  NYSUT Communications
Emilie Bastian, librarian at Clyde-Savannah Junior/Senior High
Caption: Emilie Bastian, librarian at Clyde-Savannah Junior/Senior High. Photo by Andrew Watson.

According to the American Library Association, book bans are at an all-time high. Last year alone, the ALA documented 1,269 demands to remove library books from shelves, twice as many as the year before.

For those who think it couldn’t happen in their community, meet Emilie Bastian, librarian at Clyde-Savannah Junior/Senior High.

Bastian had been a teacher in the Clyde-Savannah English department for more than 20 years. In 2022, when she became the school librarian, she filled a post that had stood empty for many years and took on the difficult job of reviving the secondary school’s dormant library program.

“The library was in pretty significant disarray, and I was trying to fix it up,” said Bastian. “It had not been weeded in some time, there was a lot of older materials. I ordered new books and reconfigured the space.” Bastian also worked closely with teachers across the disciplines to make sure that the library met their curricula needs. Visits to the library soon became a regular part of many classes.

She also drafted a guidebook to help the district deal with book challenges, based on existing school policies.

It was a project that would prove to be quite prescient.

“It became very important because before that there was no process,” she said.

Bastian worked hard to make the library warmer and more welcoming for new visitors, adding a soft seating area, and several conference tables, including one with chairs hand-painted by students. The result is a cozy, inviting space that her students love.

“It’s just so welcoming,” gushed Jill Robert, president of the Clyde-Savannah Faculty Association. “Kids want to come in this library. You can come in here any day of the week, and there are kids reading everywhere.”

“I’m so very proud to say that about 96 percent of seventh through 12th graders have a book checked out as we speak,” said Bastian. “That was probably much closer to 5 percent before I got in here.”

But not everyone was won over by the updates.

In spring of 2023, a pastor of a small church in Clyde, who does not have children in the district, attended two school board meetings to demand that five books be removed from library shelves on the grounds that they were “pornographic.”

As per the district’s new procedure, the pastor’s challenges had to be submitted in writing and reviewed by a six-member Library Materials Review Committee. After carefully examining the objections against the material, and the material itself, the committee recommended that the materials remain on the shelves.

Dissatisfied with the committee’s decision to keep the books, the pastor appealed to the board of education. The board members convened in August, and voted to go against the committee’s recommendations, choosing instead to side with the pastor and ban the books from the library.

Bastian was heartsick by the August decision. “Censorship is a way for people to control other people.” Bastian said. “Nobody should be able to tell someone what they should think.”

She was frustrated with the board's decision to ban the books but was unsure how to proceed.

“We didn't really know what to do at that point to return the books, so I spoke to our NYSUT labor relations specialist, Jon Hickey.” NYSUT agreed to assist. The attorneys from NYSUT’s Office of General Counsel worked closely with Bastian and Hickey to draft an appeal to the Commissioner of Education. The board of education was served with the appeal on Sept. 8, 2023. At their meeting on Sept. 13, 2023, the board voted again, this time to restore the books.

After the meeting, Bastian was overwhelmed by support from the community, the union, and across the state.

Overall, district parents believe in the importance of diversity in reading materials, to build empathy and tolerance for others, Bastian said. Books also help marginalized people feel recognized and understood.

“And I’ve seen it. As the librarian, I've seen kids pick up a book and be like, ‘This is really true. This is like me’,” she said.

Robert and Bastian are the first to praise small-town life and agree that living in a small rural community like Clyde-Savannah, with a graduating class of just 65, comes with many benefits. “Everybody knows everybody, so we kind of all look out for each other,” said Robert.

But there are drawbacks, too. “One of the difficulties of a small community is a lack of diversity. We really do not have people from other countries or nationalities coming to Clyde, so students really don’t get to see much beyond what they see in the mirror,” said Bastian.

“You bring the world to Clyde-Savannah through books,” she explained.

Bastian is glad that they had a process to follow throughout this procedure, and she urges other districts to adopt processes for dealing with similar challenges.

Robert agrees. “We were surprised that such an issue would come up in this little town, but we followed the correct procedures, as laid out in our policy, and I think in the end, it worked out,” she said.