A row of rainbow flags are displayed above the bookshelves in the teen room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A row of rainbow flags are displayed above the bookshelves in the teen room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Schools, libraries get warning letters from state attorney general about youth content

Local officials say letters lack specifics, aren’t considering changes in policies.

Stern warning letters about sex- and gender-related regulations were sent to libraries and school districts last Thursday by Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor, who then sent out a press release last Friday declaring he is responding to “questions and concerns from Alaskans.”

A spokesperson for Taylor’s office said they are not aware of any complaints specific to the Juneau School District, and local municipal and library officials said they aren’t considering any policy changes as a result of the letters.

One letter sent by Taylor to school districts focuses on a 2016 parental notification law as it relates to “human reproduction and sexual matters,” noting among other things that “gender identity” is part of that classification, according to Taylor. He stated some districts are not including the latter, meaning it is among the topics teachers must notify parents in advance if in-school discussions are planned and parents given an opportunity to opt their child out.

Another state education commissioner Deena Bishop is Taylor’s legal interpretation of a subsection of the parental notification law.

“Gender identity coursework necessarily involves topics related to reproductive organs,” Taylor wrote in the letter to the commissioner. “The purpose of the statute is to advance parents’ rights to be involved in the education of their child, which notice about gender identity coursework facilitates.”

A third letter sent to public and school libraries focuses on material accessible to minors, with Taylor stating children should not have access to “books that have graphic depictions of sexual content.”

The letters were sent this week because the attorney general has recently “been approached many times by concerned parents, community members, and members of school boards” about the issues addressed, according to an FAQ published last Friday at the Alaska Department of Law’s website.

“In light of the questions and concerns that have come up, I thought it best to inform everyone of what the law says to avoid further confusion,” Taylor said in a prepared statement. “Whether or not there has been a violation of the law will always be a fact-specific inquiry, so these letters do not cast any blame. The purpose is simply to provide information that can help school districts and libraries comply with the law.”

Catherine Melville, director of the Juneau Public Libraries, stated in an email Taylor’s letter was received Tuesday and forwarded to the city manager’s office for review.

“In the meantime, we will continue to be guided by our collection development policy,” she wrote. The policy is available at the library’s website at juneau.org/library.

Juneau’s public libraries do have books featuring LGBTQ+ content specifically targeted at juvenile readers. A sign at the entrance of the Teen Room at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library, for example, states the room is intended for grades 6-12, but “anyone may browse and borrow teen room books.” A row of small rainbow flags is displayed above bookshelves at the far end of the room, where there is also a notice for a gender support group and related pamphlets.

The library also hosted the latest in an annual series of drag storytimes in August. But Patty Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law, stated in an email “we have not received any particular complaints or concerns” about such storytimes.

“Just as with all other materials, it would require knowing the facts surrounding the incident — but just the fact that you have people dressed in drag reading stories does not implicate the statutes cited in the letter to libraries,” she wrote. “Again, you have to meet the specific criteria in the statute to be a violation, so that is the language people should look to when making a determination. And again, the content itself is not banned—the material simply cannot, under certain circumstances, be provided to, shown to, distributed to minors.”

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said in an interview this week the letters from Taylor haven’t been discussed at the local level yet and “I will say that it is odd that the attorney general or his office didn’t reach out to us directly.

“If he thinks there’s an issue we’re always happy to engage,” he said. “And it does strike me as odd for something like this to be done in the blanket way that it was done.”

The letters by Taylor are the latest in a volley of so-called “culture wars” maneuvers that occurred during the past in Alaska under Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Among such actions are a so-called “parental rights” bill he introduced during the legislative session and a ban on transgender girls participating in girls’ high school sports that officially took effect earlier this month.

[Transgender sports ban now in effect, but Juneau and other school districts in no rush to comply]

Both proposals generated widespread controversy, with the parental rights bill failing to advance because the House committee process and numerous school districts — including Juneau’s — making no changes to comply with the transgender ban that some local officials say violates the state’s constitution.

While the press release mentions media coverage about such issues that have occurred during the past year, the most recent specifically referred to is a Sept. 20 Alaska Public Media story headlined “Mat-Su library committee recommends removing 4 books from schools.”

Some observers suggested Dunleavy — serving his second and final term — was pursuing such measures in the hope of getting a job in a Republican presidential administration in 2025. He was among the first three governors to endorse Donald Trump’s bid to reclaim the White House.

Furthermore, Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom announced earlier this month she is challenging Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola in the 2024 race. That could potentially leave a void for the state’s top executive job following the election.

Meanwhile, the City and Borough of Juneau earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2023 Municipality Equality Index (MEI) scorecard for the third consecutive year, HRC announced Nov. 14. The campaign looked at 506 cities nationally, with Juneau the only city among seven in Alaska getting a perfect score.

Melville stated one key principle is “public libraries do not take the place of a parent or guardian.”

“When a Juneau resident under the age of 18 signs up for a library card, their parent or guardian signs a document that states that they are responsible for the choices of materials made by their child,” she wrote. “Parents are the best judge of which books are right for their children, and we encourage parents to be involved in their children’s reading choices and use of the library. Our goal is to build a collection that includes a range of material so all Juneau residents find something to interest and inform them at our libraries.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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