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A Parent Complained About A Digital Book. Then An Orange County School Board Suspended The Whole Library

A blue background with the text "Sora" and below it "Open a world of reading." There's a cartoon robot next the logo flying upwards and clouds along the bottom of the screen.
The Sora reading app is used by dozens of schools in Orange County.
(Screenshot of the Sora website
LAist )
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  • Feb. 3: The Sora app will be reinstated Feb. 6. In a written announcement, Interim Superintendent Edward Velasquez said that the books in question have been reassigned to the correct grade levels. He added that no books or categories have been removed from the app, and that the app will now default to the lowest grade level as a safeguard.

Students at Orange Unified School District no longer have access to a digital library after parents complained that some books available through the app were inappropriate for children.

The district's newly appointed interim superintendent, Edward Velasquez, suspended the Sora library app earlier this week, prompting outrage among some parents and praise from others.

"This isn’t book banning or censorship," wrote one man on the public Facebook group OUSD Buzz. "This is ensuring age appropriate materials remain where they should be."

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Not everyone agreed. Eugene Fields, whose daughter attends first grade at Crescent Elementary School in the district, said he "found it disturbing" that the superintendent would suspend student access to the entire Sora library because of complaints about two books.

"That's the equivalent of finding a spider in your basement and taking a flamethrower to your entire home," he said.

Two books at center of OC debate

Orange Unified School District is the latest O.C. battleground in a contentious nationwide debate over what's taught in public schools. Conservatives have also taken aim at what they consider inappropriate materials, often concerning LGBTQ+ sexuality and race, in school libraries.

The book that prompted the interim superintendent to suspend student access to the Sora library app is the young adult novel "The Music of What Happens."

During the public comment period at the Jan. 19 board meeting, a mother of three students in the district read graphic passages from the book. She said the book was "not an isolated incident. There's more on Sora." She also said the app had no effective parental controls.

Another parent at the meeting took issue with the book "A Polar Bear in Love," which she said was available to her second grader on her school-issued iPad through an app called Library Pass. The story is about a polar bear who falls in love with a younger seal of the same sex. She called the main character "an innocently illustrated sexual predator polar bear."

Hana Brake, communications director for the district, told LAist that the app was suspended because of issues with "grade level appropriate content.”

“So it's not about pulling LGBTQ books in any way. It's just making sure that content is grade level appropriate,” she said.

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How easy (or hard) is it to find inappropriate content?

Most parents who have commented publicly about the books agree that they're inappropriate for young students. But opinions vary over whether or not it makes sense to make them completely unavailable to any Orange Unified student — and whether or not the concerns of a few parents warrant cutting students off from all content on a much-used digital library.

Fields thinks some parents are actively searching for offensive content on district platforms.

Fields said it took him "forever to find the Sora library" on his first grade daughter's school-issued tablet, "and it took me forever and a half” to locate one of the books, "The Music of What Happened." He said he couldn't find "A Polar Bear in Love" and had to Google it to find out more about it.

A quick search on Sora's website shows that dozens of schools in Orange County use Sora, including nine public school districts, private religious-affiliated schools and charter schools.

Greg Goodlander, who heads the Orange Unified teachers union, said when Sora was notified of district concerns, "The Music of What Happens" was reclassified and made unavailable to young students.

“They corrected that problem within 24 hours," he said. "The decision by the interim superintendent to suspend the app seems quick and rash.”

He said that suspending the app disrupted student instruction. “We do have 27 elementary schools and 1,300 educators. It’s an app that, for some teachers, they use all the time.”

In an update posted on the district's website, Interim Superintendent Velasquez said the suspension of Sora "is a temporary solution to the issues that the [school board] Trustees and I have been made aware of regarding that specific app." He said he was "actively working with staff to see if Sora or another app can ensure that students have access to grade-level appropriate content and give parents the ability for oversight."

New conservative school board, new superintendent

Orange Unified serves some 27,000 students in Orange, Villa Park and parts of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. The Sora app controversy is the second time the district has made news in the new year.

At a special meeting held during winter break, the newly elected Orange Unified school board abruptly fired former Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen, who had worked in the district for nearly 13 years. They also voted to place Assistant Superintendent Cathleen Corella on paid administrative leave pending an academic audit.

The board voted to appoint Velasquez, a retired school administrator living in Idaho, as interim superintendent.

The moves came after the recent election of Trustee Madison Miner, who ran on a "parental rights" platform opposing school closures and state ethnic studies curriculum, and favoring school choice. Though school boards are technically non-partisan, Miner’s election gave the board a conservative majority. Many school boards have become increasingly politicized in recent years.

Hansen's surprise firing and replacement prompted threats of a recall among angry parents. State Senator David Min wrote a letter to school board president Rick Ledesma expressing concerns that trustees may have discussed the personnel changes outside of public meetings, potentially violating the state Brown Act — rules for conducting public meetings.

Goodlander, the teacher’s union president, said: “I do believe that the GOP has made a concerted effort to take over school boards across the country. And we're starting to see that plan play out in our district right now.” He said the union is concerned about an “organized effort by the extreme right… to transform public education.”

The Orange Unified Board of Education meets tonight, Feb. 2, at 5:30 p.m.

Have a question about Orange County?
Jill Replogle wants to know what you wished you knew more about in OC and what’s important to you that’s not getting enough attention.

Updated February 3, 2023 at 10:53 AM PST
This story was updated with new information from the district that the Sora app will be reinstated.
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