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High Plains Library District denies former librarian’s allegations of censorship, discrimination

As a former librarian with the High Plains Library District continues to spread word about policy changes she says were used to cancel or modify diversity-focused programming, the district is defending the changes as part of a larger improvement effort that doesn’t aim to censor or discriminate against any groups.

In mid-November, Brooky Parks arrived at her job as a teen librarian at the Erie Community Library, a position she had held since May 2019. Just two days after the district’s board of trustees met that month, Parks said, she received a paper from the associate director of public services about new policies regarding the district’s programming.

The associate director was concerned about a couple of Parks’ planned programs, including a Read Woke Book Club, a program during Pride Month about the LGBTQ movement and an anti-racism workshop for teens. Parks said she was told the programs were polarizing and that the book club had to be renamed and the other programs canceled.

Parks contacted the American Library Association and was encouraged to report the alleged censorship on their website. She also wrote a letter to the community about the policy changes, saying the administration was using them to cancel programs for marginalized community members.

In response, the district has released a statement arguing the policy changes were part of a continual improvement process as officials work toward a lofty goal of becoming the first library district in the U.S. to earn a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Programs weren’t canceled or modified due to content, but performance and resource considerations, the district said.

“In our journey down the Baldrige path, we have committed ourselves to implementing a strategic plan to satisfy our community’s needs,” the district wrote. “During that process, it was determined we review and update our current procedures and practices to ensure they are aligned with our policies.”

In its statement, the district asserts it maintains intellectual freedom and diverse points of view as core values libraries must uphold.

Parks, however, said the policy changes include vague, subjective points that “could be used to cancel almost anything, but the only thing that’s being canceled are the programs for marginalized community members.”

She pointed to two policies in particular that were used to justify the changes to her programs: one that said the district wouldn’t offer intentionally inflammatory or polarizing programs and another that said it wouldn’t offer programs that try to persuade participants to one particular point of view.

In early December, Parks went in for a performance evaluation, where she was issued a written warning she said related to events well over a year old with inaccurate or out-of-context information. She began working on a written rebuttal, but her letter about the policy changes was posted to the Colorado Association of Libraries Intellectual Freedom Committee’s listserv shortly after.

Parks submitted her written rebuttal in mid-December, but she was fired the next day, she said. Parks said the district offered her a $5,000 contract to help her through unemployment, with a condition that she agreed not to sue the district.

“I smiled and put it in my folder, did not sign it, packed up my desk and left,” Parks said.

Parks has since hired legal representation including Iris Halpern, a civil rights attorney and partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC. Halpern said there were a number of potential claims that could be litigated, including discrimination outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and retaliation for exercising free speech, the latter violating First Amendment rights.

Halpern suggested Parks is not alone, as people across the nation have increased criticism of progressive educational efforts at libraries and schools. She said it’s important people understand their rights as librarians, teachers and other educators face such backlash.

“They just wanted to produce programming that is true, tried and effective for different groups that have historically been pushed aside and disenfranchised and marginalized,” Halpern said.

The district said its shift in programming relates to the strategic plan approved at the end of 2018. Community feedback guided steps to shift the programming focus to skill-based and development, as well as programming that encourages crucial conversations and civil discourse.

“In this shift, we had to allocate resources and even make budgetary decisions,” the statement continued. “This change coupled with the Baldrige Framework has led us to further evaluate the outcomes of programs and their potential for success.”

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