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School Violated Policy By Pulling Racy Book

(c) Gilbert Hernandez courtesy Fantagraphics
Vicente, one of the characters that appears in Palomar, is shown here during the early stages of his courtship with Pipo.

Who decides what teenagers get to check out from their school library? That question is at the center of a controversy in Rio Rancho, where school staff violated policy when they removed a book.

It all started back in February when a ninth-grader checked out a book from the library at Rio Rancho High School. He took it home and his mom saw it. 

“First thing I saw was a nude scene,” Catreena Lopez, the teenager’s mother, explained, “a nude sex scene.”

Lopez said when her son, who was 14-years-old at the time, got the graphic novel, he was expecting it to be similar to a Spider-Man comic book.

“In this picture,” Lopez said, pointing to images from the book, “you see basically the woman’s nipples and her other private areas—all drawn in.”

The next day Lopez marched into the school, demanding the book be removed.

Then she sent pictures of it to a local TV station, the ABC affiliate KOAT. It reported a spokesperson for Rio Rancho Public Schools said officials agreed with Lopez that the book was ‘clearly inappropriate.’

The book is Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Series, a collection of award-winning stories by Gilbert Hernandez. Using black-and-white drawings, Hernandez tells tales of an imaginary dusty town in Central America, exploring themes of broken families, politics and, yes, passion.

Credit (c) Gilbert Hernandez, courtesy Fantagraphics.
Palomar received glowing reviews from critics and was listed as one of the top ten best graphic novels by TIME Magazine. The book is out of print.

Despite the novel’s accolades, Lopez said she didn’t want her kid seeing it.

“I’m not saying he’s not a great author,” Lopez explained. “I’m saying that it’s not appropriate for a public school library.”

Peter Hart with the National Coalition Against Censorship explained Lopez is opening up a can of worms.

“The parent is free to not allow her child to read these things in their house,” Hart said. “The problem is when you decide that not only is your child not allowed to read that book, no one else’s child is allowed to read that book either.”

When someone wants to yank something like Palomar off the shelf, there’s a policy for public school librarians to follow. Rio Rancho’s Library Bill of Rights says all challenges must be made in writing.

Did Lopez lodge a written challenge? We filed a public records request to find out. 

According to emails, she did, but not before the graphic novel was pulled. Vice Principal Sherri Carver said the book had been removed from the collection and shouldn’t be reconsidered.

Essentially, case closed.

Lynn DelMargo was a high school librarian for 14 years. “So many important books that have been banned, people wanted to burn them, take them off the shelves, and we would have never seen them again,” DelMargo said. “Thank goodness we didn’t.”

DelMargo said school librarians are supposed to expose kids to all styles of literature in order to expand their worlds, make them critical thinkers. Hopefully, she added, they’ll fall in love with reading, too.

Quite often, DelMargo said, kids can handle a lot more than adults give them credit for.

“So let’s not freak out too bad. I mean if this was the case," she said, "we never would have gotten to read Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Color Purple.”

Parents have a right to control what their own kids bring home from school, DelMargo said, but not what other kids check out.

According to emails, the assistant superintendent of the school district, Carl Leppelman, said administrators had to follow policy – something he pointed out they hadn’t done.

He ordered a committee to review the merits of Palomar, as required by policy. Members were told the whole process shouldn’t take more then half an hour.

Bear in mind, this is a 522-page graphic novel, eight people, and a list of concerns from a parent

“I don’t know that you can really say that the discussion wasn’t meaningful or that it wasn’t really taken seriously, because clearly I think they had a deep and meaningful discussion,” said Beth Pendergrass, a spokesperson for the district.

She explained that the committee’s discussion in mid-March lasted over an hour and ended with a 5-to-3 vote to keep Palomar in the school’s library.

“However, we will ask that any student under 18 wishing to check the book out receive parent permission,” she said.

No other novel at the school has that caveat attached to it, Pendergrass said, and for now Palomar is still sitting in the district superintendent’s office four months after the vote.

According to emails, Rio Rancho High School’s top two administrators wantPalomarpurged from the library once and for all.

Catreena Lopez, the mom, said she’s appealed to the superintendent to do just that.

The district’s administration says they’ve yet to receive her appeal in writing.