A former librarian will receive $250,000 from the High Plains Library District as part of a settlement in a lengthy civil rights dispute over her firing.
Brooky Parks lost her job at Erie Community Library in 2021 after promoting anti-racism and LGBTQ history workshops for teens. The programming drew backlash from the district’s board of trustees, which oversees more than a dozen public libraries across Northern Colorado.
Members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission signed off on the financial agreement on Friday, making it official. It also drops discrimination charges against the district and includes requirements that district leaders update their programming policies to be more inclusive.
“I feel validated and really vindicated,” Parks said. “I think this sends a message to all libraries that there’s consequences for retaliation against people and that libraries are meant to serve all members of the community.”
The district did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement Friday morning.
Parks’ legal saga began in late 2021, after the library district adopted new policies around programming at its branch locations. The rules mandated that the programs could not “persuade participants to a particular point of view” or be “intentionally inflammatory.”
The policies led to the cancellation of Parks’ educational programs and a reading group she led called the “Read Woke Book Club.” She pushed back against the decisions, which led to her firing. The district said in a statement in 2021 that her firing was due to an “HR matter.”
In February 2022, Parks filed discrimination complaints with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. The state’s commission concluded earlier this year that Parks’ complaint was valid.
As part of the settlement, the district adopted new programming rules at its regular meeting earlier this week. They direct the district to encourage programming that is more “inclusive and diverse,” among other changes.
Still, some board members pushed back against removing the vague policy around “inflammatory” programming that led to Parks’ firing.
“I don’t think we need to be presenting programs that are inflammatory,” said Kenneth Poncelow, who supported the policy but didn’t specify details about the types of events he considers inflammatory. “I think we have enough of that in our country.”
“I agree, but I feel like everything is polarized and inflammatory or controversial these days," said Gerri Holton, another board member, in response. “You could have any program where somebody would have an issue with it.”
Board members did not remove the old policy language, but tabled the discussion for a future meeting.
Since Parks’ firing, the board for High Plains has continued to prohibit certain LGBTQ programming, including drag queen story hours. This past summer, a planned pop-up Pride event had to relocate due to board concerns.
The policy changes and the backing of the state’s civil rights commission make Parks’ settlement one of the first of its kind in Colorado, said Iris Halpern, a partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai, LLC, who represents Parks. Halpern has also represented fired librarians in similar cases in Texas and Wyoming.
“There's a lot of really important equitable and injunctive relief in these settlement agreements to ensure that the High Plains Library District and hopefully other districts across America remember what their mission is, which is to serve the entire public and to make sure that different communities are supported,” Halpern said.
Parks’ employment battle is part of a national rise in terminations of school teachers and librarians who support LGBT or other books and programming focused on historically underrepresented groups, she added.
“There’s been this kind of manufactured crisis around education and books that has been particularly virulent against LGBTQ youth and youth of color,” Halpern said. “We don’t want to go back in time where our public institutions were not welcoming of minorities.”
Book challenges are also rising. The American Library Association recorded more than 700 attempts to ban books during the first half of 2023 – a 20% jump over the same time period last year.
Research from Pen America shows many bans are part of a coordinated effort among conservative political groups. A large majority of targeted books center on LGBTQ characters and themes.
In Colorado, Douglas County library leaders fought back against an attempt to ban four books this summer. Garfield County’s library system is currently in a debate over banning certain Japanese Manga graphic novels.
After losing her job in Erie, Parks, who has two kids, spent more than a year looking for work at another library. She went on unemployment and got a temporary job as a housing coordinator for a nonprofit.
Her settlement doesn’t influence policy at any library district outside of High Plains. But she hopes other librarians take notice and defend access to a wide range of programming and books, especially for teens.
“At that age, they may not have those resources or support networks at home or even in their schools,” said Parks, who now works as a librarian in Denver. “Sometimes the only place that they can come where it's safe and they can feel included and important and seen is the public library.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!