How Lander lost a librarian
Nate Shoutis produced a rap last August ahead of freshman library orientation.
The Lander Valley High School librarian wrote verses showcasing the technology available to students. He sang about the inclusive spirit of the library he’d worked in for nearly a decade.
The song ended with a medley of genres and books.
Performing live during the first weeks of language arts classes, Shoutis and his assistant broadcast a message that all students were welcome in the Lander Valley High School Library.
Shoutis wanted students to find the books that interested them the most, whether that be a C.J. Box crime novel or riveting war tale, a colorful graphic novel or a book with LGBTQ+ characters.
Whatever a student’s interests, the library had one main rule, rapped by Shoutis:
“No put downs.”
Shoutis stressed the rule in response to what he saw as growing animosity toward the school’s LGBTQ+ community. He detailed this climate in a May letter sent to the teaching community of Fremont County School District No. 1, which operates Lander schools.
The letter argued that school board policy failed to address a rising climate of hate towards LGBTQ+ students and instead tacitly fomented a climate of harassment and discrimination against these students, as well as the censorship of librarians and educators.
Those concerns have been raised in school districts across the nation. School libraries have become home to a polarizing debate over the books that should be available to students. Spaces once known as quiet places to study have become clouded in suspicion and rancor.
That climate cost Lander an educator that, according to his students, was deeply caring and universally accepting. At the end of the school year, Shoutis walked away from the library and what he’d once called his “dream job.”
Making of a librarian
Libraries run in the Shoutis family. His mother Cady Shoutis served as a librarian at both South Elementary and Gannett Peak.
He shares her curious eyes. His fit frame is evidence of his love for canyoneering, packrafting, and generally adventuring outdoors. Like many Landerites, he worked as a National Outdoor Leadership School field instructor.
But by his late 20s, he had reached a juncture, deciding whether to take his outdoor educator skills into a more conventional school setting or go back to school himself and study film.
Both of these callings were kindled in the Lander Valley High School library, where Paula Hunker served as his librarian and videography teacher. She and his mother demonstrated how meaningful a role in the library could be, he said.
To sort out his decision, he volunteered in Portland, Oregon, shadowing librarians and helping with collection upkeep.
His mother wasn’t surprised when he decided to join the district as Lander Valley High School’s library media specialist in 2014.
“I just came to understand the position as one that was really well suited for my skill set, both with technology and media, as well as literacy and reading,” he said. “And just the love of reading.”
Heart of the job
Shoutis ran the library space and also taught technology classes, where his students learned software and production skills for film, music and audio and 3D printing.
But he viewed the essence of his job more simply: inspiring a love of reading in his students.
That required tuning into student needs and interests by building relationships.
“I’m always asking students, ‘Hey, what are you reading? What’s on your radar? What are you looking for?’” Shoutis said.
A master’s in education, a certification in language arts and library media and the diverse student body informed his book ordering process.The most important thing, he said, is to foster a collection that facilitates free choice reading, the principle of letting students select their own materials. If someone cared enough to recommend a book, Shoutis said, he’d almost always try to order it, as long as it passed his professional research and review process.
This professional process did not involve his personal values, he said. When cycling in new books, he would remove volumes that were falling apart, were out of date or hadn’t been checked out in years.
“But it is never about, ‘oh, our value systems have changed, and we’re updating our value system or our moral systems at all.’ It has nothing to do with that,” he said. “What it has to do with is trying to make sure we have a balance of everything in the library.”
American history is littered with examples of book bans. Volumes considered classics — “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” — have been repeatedly challenged nationally by critics who contend they aren’t suitable for young people.
But the recent wave of book challenges stands out. In 2022, the American Library Association reported a record number of demands to censor library books and materials. The increase came as right-wing groups such as Moms For Liberty spurred regional efforts to curb “woke indoctrination” within schools and public libraries.
The culture wars have raged for decades in the U.S. But in the recent past, a new battleground emerged: the school board.
Shoutis’ professional work — which he says had not been questioned in his nearly a decade tenure — became the subject of scrutiny in December. Concerns over the books available in Lander school libraries, as well as the policy for challenging them, reached the board governing Fremont County School District No.1.
Board member Scott Jensen said he raised the issue after being approached by community members who were concerned about the process of challenging reading materials. Under the system that existed at the time, the district superintendent settled book complaints, but that decision could be appealed to the school board.
National concerns about reading resources and the ability to challenge them raised local unease over the school district’s policy, according to Jensen.
Jensen advocated for reconsidering the process “to address the tenor of the adversarial nature of the old policy and the complexity of it, to make it more simple,” he explained in an interview with WyoFile.
“I wanted to implement something that was more transparent,” he said. “So that people could see that, in fact, what is happening in other parts of the country really isn’t happening here.”
On this point, Shoutis agrees. During his time as librarian, only one parent had approached him with a concern over a library book.
“The whole issue is completely fabricated. Utterly, a non-issue,” he said.
Shoutis believes the national issue escalated in Wyoming after interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder organized the Stop the Sexualization of Our Children press conference. The conference, held in October at Little America in Cheyenne, provided a map of Wyoming school districts that offered books of concern, as identified by conference organizers.
Shoutis’ believes that the anti-sexualization movement is aimed at eliminating LGBTQ+ voices and material — both in and out of libraries.
“I think the whole maneuvering is to silence LGBTQ and Black perspectives in schools completely. So it’s not just about censoring books. It’s about censoring everything.”
Board members Aileen Brew and Jensen offered two competing policy drafts. In his letter, Shoutis endorsed Brew’s policy, which would have left appeals in the hands of a committee of stakeholders rather than the board.
However, the board adopted Jensen’s approach in a 4-3 vote at a June board meeting.
The updated policy places the final consideration of materials in the hands of the school board, which is supposed to render a decision based on “community values.”
Jensen says that community values are an incredibly difficult thing to define, but are ultimately up to the acting school board to determine via open debate and public discussion. The ultimate “check and balance on that is the democratically elected board,” he said. “So if the board gets out of tune with the community, and then whichever members are out of tune will get voted out, and there’ll be a new board.”
Shoutis argues that the resulting community values will not be a measure of the entire district but rather reflective of the seven-member school board. “Make no mistake — he is very much describing classic book banning and censorship,” Shoutis wrote in his May letter.
Rising violence and school board policy
Shoutis did not pull any punches in his letter.
A series of new school board policies over the last two years, he argued, have not only failed to address rising harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students, but removed protections for them as well. He was in a position to know. Shoutis was advisor for the SPEAK club, the high school’s Genders and Sexualities Alliance organization.
In the letter, he describes a dangerous disconnect over what is directly harming students and the school board’s recent policies. While officials fret over library books, real harm against LGBTQ+ students gets overlooked, he argued.
The main problem, Shoutis contends in his letter, is the rising climate of harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students and the inability to counter it due to an inadequate reporting system.
Jensen, for his part, agrees that the reporting system is ineffective, describing it as opaque. It operates as a one-way reporting loop, where students and educators report episodes of bullying, but do not receive follow-up on if or how the situation has been resolved.
It is the administration’s, rather than the board’s, job to manage that issue, Jensen says. He said the administration has been collecting data on the problem before they change the reporting system, Jensen said.
But Shoutis argues that student needs are being neglected.
In spring of 2022, he and the SPEAK club members spent a month’s worth of lunchtime meetings logging student experiences with bullying and what they see as a broken reporting policy to share with the counselors, administration and later the board. The policy remains the same.
Instead, Shoutis argues recent policy changes — regulating the teaching of controversial issues and dissolving explicit non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community — have made it harder to report instances of harassment and discrimination.
Further, the teaching controversial issues policy adopted by the board in spring 2021 — compounded by the push to ease book-challenge policy — prompted teachers like him to censor themselves, which Shoutis said limited his ability to be an effective educator and librarian.
But that’s a feature, not a bug, Jensen countered.
“That is, in fact, the purpose of that policy, is to have teachers to self censor themselves so that they do not use their platform to proselytize to kids,” Jensen said.
In April, Shoutis was reprimanded via the policy over a student-designed banned book display that featured queer-themed books. But by then, he’d already made the decision to leave.
As an educator trying to mend what he saw as a disconnect between students who felt harmed and the higher ups, and as a librarian trying to uphold the American Library Association’s standard — “freedom to read” — he was depleted.
He gave notice to resign in February. It was time to step down for his own health and to give the school time to find a strong replacement.
His last day was May 26.
A few weeks later, at his home framed by the brick-red canyon rocks of the Wind River uplift, Shoutis had to look away when remembering his time at Lander Valley High.
He was crying.
“I guess the only thing I would say is that the heroes in the story are just the students themselves, these queer students because they are so resilient, ” he said.
A loss for students
With Shoutis’ departure, former students feel they’ve not only lost a deeply welcoming librarian, but a generous tech wizard and fierce advocate.
“I don’t want to think about whether the new librarian will do a good job,” said Finn Gebhart, a rising Lander Valley High junior.
“I think it’s a loss that our school and our school district will never get back.”
Gebhart was in Shoutis’ emerging technology class, where students had the chance to learn animation, music production and video editing software.
“It feels like very rarely do teachers genuinely care about what is going on in their students’ lives, and to some extent, even the education that their students are receiving,” Gebhart said.
SPEAK club member Felanie Kelson recalled when Shoutis worked to find a coach for the speech and debate club so that forum remained available for students.
They also remembered when Shoutis chaperoned the annual SPEAK club field trip to the University of Wyoming’s Shepard Symposium on Social Justice. The students had the chance to thrift for outfits for a queer dance party hosted on the last day.
The Lander Valley High motto is “every student every day.”
“[It is] definitely not met, but [Shoutis] made sure that every student he interacted with, like that the goal was every student every day,” Kelson said.
Shari Haskins, who manages Riverton’s public library, said Shoutis is “kind and generous to his profession and to his students.”
“He so embraced the profession and what he could do with it for the students. It was a break from mediocrity. [Mediocrity] has its place because it’s easy. But when you want to excel, you’ll get a lot of criticism, and he was excelling.”
To students like Gebhart and Kelson, it felt like the school board pushed out Shoutis.
“I just think it’s important to remember him as who he was, and as what he did for our school system,” Kelson said. “But I also think it’s important to note that he would still be here, if it weren’t for our school system, if they hadn’t pushed him out and pushed him to his limit. He’s not the only one that they’re pushing.”
Board chair Jared Kail said the district cannot comment on Shoutis’ resignation as it is a personnel issue. Brew also said she could not comment as a board member. But speaking as a parent, she said Shoutis had a major impact on her daughter, who met him as a freshman.
“She gained a much greater awareness of social justice issues and the importance of standing up for your beliefs and for the rights of yourself and others,” Brew wrote in an email to WyoFile.
“Mr. Shoutis encouraged student creativity, intellectual curiosity and involvement, whether students were interested in gaming, or videography or photography, or books,” she added. “He was a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ students in our high school and worked to create a learning and social environment that supported all students.”
Shoutis, for his part, is taking a break from not only teaching, but Lander. During a recent phone conversation, he paused when asked what was next. His response was interrupted by the public address system at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska.
He was headed out for a long trip.
“Lander’s home,” Shoutis said. “I need a break from it, though.”
“It’s been hard to take that the small town that I grew up in has shown such overt hatred toward a group of people,” he said. “But I haven’t given up on it, even though I’m really, really, really disappointed in a lot of people there right now.”