A fierce opponent of censorship in all its forms, English teacher Kelly O’Brien-Yetto observes Banned Books Week every year in her high school classroom. She has kept track of book challenges over the years and knew that the fight was intensifying. She also knew most bans target books on race or racism, and feature characters of color or LGBTQ+ characters.
In the spring of 2023, O’Brien-Yetto received her first book challenge.
Two parents in her tiny rural community of Galway, just 25 miles west of Saratoga Springs, complained that two books O’Brien-Yetto had chosen for her 9th and 10th graders were “inappropriate.”
“I've been teaching for over 10 years, so although I knew it was coming, it was still a little unsettling,” said O’Brien-Yetto, a member of the Galway Teachers Association. “It's become sort of a political issue, and we've seen it happening in other states, so we were pretty sure it would come to us eventually.”
When it did, the Galway English Department found security in their own due diligence, as well as the support they got from administration and parents.
“One of the policies that we have relied heavily on in this process of having our books challenged is the selection policy that the board put together for us to follow” said Melanie McDonald, chair of the English department and past president of the Galway TA.
When selecting texts for students, Galway English teachers must affirm that the text meets criteria set forth by both the National Council for Teachers of English, the district’s board of education, and New York state standards, she explained. The educator also brings the text to the larger department for discussion and approval and solicits feedback from the building administration.
“Teachers really care deeply about our students, and we care deeply about our curriculum. Nobody gets into this for the glamour or the money,” said O’Brien-Yetto. “We want to be sensitive, but we are really thoughtful about our choices. There is a reason behind the inclusion of our materials, and it is to help students embrace the world that exists today and the world that will exist tomorrow.”
When the complaints were brought, they were submitted in writing to the superintendent, who then submitted the challenge to the Instructional Material Review Committee, which investigated the issue, and recommended the complaints be dismissed.
The complainants appealed to the superintendent, who went through the same process, and arrived at the same conclusion.
The complainants then appealed their case to the Galway Board of Education. The board voted Aug. 17 on whether to ban the two books, and with one member absent, arrived at a split vote of 3-to-3. The board convened a special meeting on Aug. 21 to take up the issue again. This time, the gym was filled with parents, students and members of the community who spoke out in favor of the chosen titles and against censorship. The board voted 6-1 to keep the books on the list, much to the approbation of the crowd.
“There are so many different kids who have so many big ideas, and they’re not sure if anybody else is thinking about these big ideas and they feel alone. And when you have a book, that book allows you to see that other people have big ideas as well, and it’s something that helps you to feel part of a larger community,” O’Brien-Yetto said.
“I think that when we limit ideas and contents for students, we are limiting their world. We are not being authentic about the way that the world is, and we are making it harder for them to adjust to a world beyond the bubble that they have in high school.”