Library program halted at Pulaski County Special School District schools

Online access cut over legal worry

A child reaches for an item from the library bookshelf in this Aug. 17, 2010 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)
A child reaches for an item from the library bookshelf in this Aug. 17, 2010 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The Pulaski County Special School District this school year has not allowed its nearly 12,000 students to hold Central Arkansas Library System "technology cards" that would enable them to access online library materials while at home and school.

That could be about to change.

The district discontinued participating in the library system's free service in August out of concern that the student technology cards would put district personnel in jeopardy of violating Act 372 of 2023. The new law makes furnishing "a harmful item" to a minor a Class A misdemeanor.

A Class A misdemeanor can be punishable by a year in jail and/or fine.

The school district's decision against student use of the technology cards has continued into the fall despite a federal judge's July 29 decision to stop, at least temporarily, the enforcement of the part of the new law dealing with providing materials to minors.

The Central Arkansas Library System is one of several plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the new law.

The injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks is in effect until a full court hearing is held in the lawsuit. That trial is scheduled for October 2024 with possible backup dates in December 2024.

But the Pulaski Special district in the coming days will reconsider its earlier position on the technology cards for students, Jessica Duff, a spokesperson for the district, said last week. Duff said she anticipates that the technology card issue will be on the agenda at next week's leadership cabinet meeting.

The decision to hold up on the cards was made before classes started, Duff said.

"With everything that happens with school starting -- the hustle and bustle of the school year -- it was not brought back up until the Arkansas Advocate news media organization asked about it earlier in November."

Pulaski Special district teachers have continued to have access to the technology cards.

Students and teachers in the Little Rock and Jacksonville/North Pulaski school districts, and in Perry County, have access to the cards. They are served by the Central Arkansas Library System.

Ellen Samples, the library system's director of programming, said private schools and public charter schools in the system's service area have also participated in the technology card program.

"Over the past five years through the Tech Card program, we have served thousands of students in our service area, connecting them with digital library resources while lowering the barriers to access for students who can't always visit the library in person or may not have a library card," Samples said. "Throughout the program, the feedback from districts, schools, librarians and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive."

The student portal offers a curated list of resources by grade level and has increased the visibility of the tools and services the library has not only for students but also for teachers in support of their instruction, Samples said.

In the 2022-23 school year, technology card users checked out 25,261 e-books and 4,998 audiobooks and streamed around 41,600 songs, library leaders said Wednesday.

Duff said the Pulaski Special district wants to provide access to the technology cards.

"There are a lot of fine lines and red tape that we had to be careful around. It wasn't that we didn't agree with the program or that we had any issues with the program. It was 'Are we going to get in trouble for permitting the program?'"

Duff said high school students in particular have used the technology cards in past years to access resources for research papers, "so if we are able to get it reinstated, it would be a great benefit for our students."

The Pulaski Special district had participated since 2018 in the technology card program for elementary, middle and high school students. The cards were available to all teachers and students who wanted one -- even if the student did not have a traditional library card or transportation to a traditional library.

THE LAW

Act 372 states that "a person commits furnishing harmful items to a minor if, knowing the character of the item involved, the person knowingly furnishes, presents, provides, makes available, gives, lends, shows, advertises, or distributes to a minor an item that is harmful to minors."

The law in part describes "harmful to minors" as "material or performance that depicts or describes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse."

EMAILS

An Aug. 7 exchange of emails between representatives of the Pulaski Special district and public library system -- obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request -- set the stage for the issue.

"Are you offering tech cards this year?" Melinda Holman, library media and technology facilitator for the school district, asked Samples and Amanda Orgel of the Central Arkansas Library System.

Samples responded: "Yes, we are. I have been meaning to reach out and get the ball rolling for this year. The cards are here, and we just need to get them broken down into counts for your schools."

Samples proceeded to ask for school-by-school enrollments, whether a letter to parents about the cards should be printed on paper or distributed electronically, and whether the district wanted to set up information sessions with teachers and school librarians.

Minutes later Holman emailed back to Samples:

"We are trying to find out if it is ok to use the cards as they don't block access to inappropriate material for younger students. Are other schools struggling with this as well?" Holman asked.

Orgel, the library system's youth projects coordinator, responded: "This is such a tricky issue these days. To answer your question, no we have not had any other schools reach out to us with concerns over use of tech cards. If your question is in reference to Act 372, it is our understanding that the law as written doesn't apply to digital materials, but Ellen [Samples] is reaching out to our legal team for clarification and more info on that point. I will let you know what I find out. Good luck with the new school year!!!!"

That night Holman wrote to Orgel: "Thank you for your quick response. Our Assistant Superintendent is contacting our lawyer as well. Hopefully, we will get an answer soon. Our students will be ready for their cards when they arrive on day 1."

Classes started in the district on Aug. 14.

On Aug. 10, Samples of the library system reported that "our lawyer has advised that allowing student [access] through Tech Cards is safe from charges under the new misdemeanor in Section 1 of Act 372 at this time.

"As far as I'm aware, that would be the only issue with access to digital materials that the law addresses," Samples continued. "I am meeting with the lawyer as soon as we can get it scheduled to further discuss the details of the Tech Card program to ensure that there aren't any other issues, but for now, we've been advised that there is not a legal ramification with providing students with tech cards to access our digital resources."

On Aug. 15, Holman wrote to say she was waiting to receive word from a lawyer for the school district.

"Our kids want the cards and are ready for them," Holman wrote.

Later that day Holman wrote again: "Our deputy superintendent is meeting with our attorney tomorrow. Fingers crossed!"

Then on Aug. 23, Holman wrote: "Our lawyer's decision is no tech cards for our students. I'm so sad I don't even know what to do. Are there other ways they can get the cards on their own?"

The emails don't mention the names of the attorneys for either organization.

Duff, the spokesperson for the Pulaski Special district, said the district conferred with Jay Bequette of the Bequette, Billingsley and Kees law firm.

"I am sad to hear this," Orgel responded to Holman. "I am not sure there is another way to get them the tech cards, but we can certainly offer library card applications and parents can decide if they want to sign their kids up for a regular library card."

Holman vented in her response to the library system personnel: "I'm sad too. We are now at the point where our kids can't have access to public library resources but they can have free access to the internet on their cell phones. That's my soapbox and I'm off it now," she wrote and added a smiley face emoji.

Other emails obtained from the school district by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette included correspondence with school teachers and librarians to the Central Arkansas Library System.

"I have several teachers that use CALS cards in their classrooms, myself included," Oak Grove Elementary School librarian Dawn Joseph wrote on Aug. 23. "We were also wondering if you know of a waiver that a parent could sign if they'd like to pick up a CALS tech card for their child," Joseph added.

And from Baker Elementary on Sept. 28: "Hey, This is first grade at Baker Elementary. We have 70 students. Can we please get Tech cards for our students? Thanks for your help, it will make our students so happy! They love to read and love Book Flix. Thanks, Susan Rainer and Audrey Baldwin."