Rumors About School Library Book Banning Brings Participants, Perspectives To BOE Meeting
UPDATE: This report was updated at 12:15 pm on April 17 to correct a misquote involving William DeRosa. It was further updated at 12:50 pm on April 26 to correct a reference to the middle school library.
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While it was not on the agenda to be directly addressed by the Board of Education, the chairs in the audience were completely full at the April 4 meeting to discuss potential book banning, particularly of the graphic novel Flamer by Mike Curato. Attendees pro and con turned out presumably because the school board has the authority to determine whether or not the book will eventually be banned through a vote.
This book was initially brought to the district’s attention by objectors who believe that Curato’s semi-autobiographical account of enduring homophobic bullying and self-discovery is pornographic in content and unsuitable for all school age levels.
Opening the floor for public comments, Chair Deborra Zukowski limited participants to three minutes. Some who said they were against book-banning correlated access to books with freedom of speech as it is understood in the first amendment of the constitution.
Glen Boyle equated the book ban with limiting “the freedom of students to get the books that are available in the press in the United States.” “To have other people impose their views on the public seems to me to be anti-democratic, anti-republic,” Boyle said.
“I understand different sides, you’re trying to help, I’m trying to help, but we’re the United States of America and we don’t ban books,” said Dave Mason.
Adding to this theme were parents who approached the board with concerns of sweeping book bans’ effects on all students’ access, not just the access of children whose parents are concerned about book content.
“Parents in our community are overreaching with their rights, and infringing on mine,” said Danielle Lozer.
Lozer also expressed concern about From the Desk Of Zoe Washington, a book that discusses personal experiences with unfairness in the justice system, being pulled as a read aloud at Reed Intermediate School by concerned parents after being recommended by the media specialist.
“God forbid kids gain some empathy when they are allowed to read and discuss with their peers a fact of American society,” Lozer said.
“Just because you don’t want to read it or see it or hear about it, does not mean you can restrict the entire community’s access to it,” said Laura Miller.
“Banning a book does not just decide what is right for one child, it decides for every child,” said Kate McGrady.
An objector of Flamer, William DeRosa — a legislative councilman — stated he and “most parents who love and adore their children ... will not find this acceptable or appropriate for their child, and for that matter, any child.” DeRosa added that he was not speaking on behalf of the council.
Lisa Kessler, also in favor of removing the book, pointed out that Flamer is available in libraries and for purchase at stores, while not referencing the title directly.
However, not everyone who associated speech with freedom agreed with keeping or removing Flamer from school library shelves.
“While I certainly understand that we have the right as American citizens to exercise our freedom of speech, there are limits to that freedom of speech,” said Dylan Thomas, who thanked the board for listening to parents.
Some of the speakers in favor of Flamer noted the book was not mandatory in the curriculum, but among many book choices for students.
“These books are available, they’re not part of their curriculum,” said Former Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander.
Many echoed each other’s sentiments that could be summarized by the phrase “representation matters,” mentioned with some frequency among those against book banning in the public participation. Several participants who voiced support of Flamer also speculated that its opponents did not read the material.
Some parents who chose to speak and referenced this idea expanded on it with personal experiences with their own LGBTQ children who struggled.
One such parent was Wendy Leon-Gambetta, who speculated whether her trans daughter would have had an easier, “less-excruciating” time as a closeted teenager “if she had seen people like her in books.”
“It might be the one thing that makes you feel normal,” Leon-Gambetta said, later adding, “I don’t think it’s farfetched to say a lot of people could actually be saved because a child has seen himself, herself, or themselves as normal in a book while they were at school.”
Participant Timothy Stan spoke from experience as a bisexual man growing up in the 1980s, “in a time where being queer was not only shamed, it was dangerous.”
“There were no positive stories or books about the experiences of queer kids,” said Stan. “The only mention of queerness was in jokes or hostile condemnation.”
Stan said that Flamer depicts “the experiences of a queer kid growing up in a toxic environment, and adds that it is “just the kind of book that we should have available to our middle school students as they mature and come into their own identities.”
“Our LGBTQ kids should be treasured and celebrated just like our straight kids,” Stan said. “We should not cancel the representation of the available literature.”
Kara LaBanca said in a survey done by The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth who reported high social support from their family attempted suicide at less than half of the rate of those who don’t, and fewer than one in three transgender and non-binary youth found their home to be gender affirming.
LaBanca said finding a book like Flamer may allow those individuals to say, “I’m valuable, I’m important, I’m not going to take my life.”
A handful of participants who were pro-Flamer referenced their own suicide attempt, or a loved one who had attempted to commit suicide after feeling socially outcast for being LGBTQ, which included teens in their lives currently living with mental health problems. They voiced that these individuals would have or could benefit from a book like Flamer.
Steve Landau said he is “very empathetic and sympathetic to everyone and anyone’s lifestyles,” and he is sure Flamer is “kind and helpful in certain ways,” but that “it does so in a perverse, disgusting, pornographic, and smutty manner in which no one should be reading much less minors in our school system.”
McGrady said she allows her son, who is seven, to view PG-13 Marvel movies. She said it is her right to allow her child to watch the movies “and have the healthy conversations together surrounding content,” and that it is the right of other parents to wait until their child is 13 to allow them to watch the movies.
McGrady said there are many parents in Newtown who allow their underage child to watch these movies “filled with violence and even sexual content, and they are the same parents who are pushing for these book bans. It’s the same reason these parents are going after these books nationally. Racism and homophobia.”
McGrady referenced a one-year study of all banned books in American schools for 2022. According to McGrady, 41 percent had LGBTQ themes, and 40 percent had a main character who was a person of color.
“Schools which claim to be a safe space should provide a politically neutral atmosphere and a place where parents will be confident that their child will not be exposed to explicit material they may not be ready for,” said Kessler.
Melissa Gomez, who identified herself as the initial objector to Flamer, opened her statement by quoting an excerpt depicting bullying with explicit language in the book.
According to Gomez, she has sent multiple e-mails, made phone calls, and attended multiple meetings “with still no rationale about why the book has not been removed from the high school library.” She said she was frustrated to learn the book also existed in the high school after she had been told it had also been removed from that library.
“One, administrators agreed to remove the book from the library and two, librarians are failing our children by being unable to place books within our school libraries that are suitable for subject, style, age, content, and the social and emotional well-being of our students,” said Gomez.
Gomez quoted Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti in an e-mail reply in which Uberti stated she was aware that “simply reading the reviews is probably no longer enough to determine the appropriateness of a book.”
“Who is responsible for placing appropriate content in our libraries if not the librarians?” Gomez asked, and stated her e-mail was signed by 62 parents and was sent to principals, administrators, and librarians.
Gomez asked why librarians could not effectively communicate to parents why they felt strongly about Flamer. She said there are policies in place that implement safe access for internet usage where students are unable to access graphic, obscene, or pornographic images and asked why they were available in the library.
Kessler referenced this as well, saying district policy “prohibits viewing material on electronic materials” and “sexually explicit e-books would not be in compliance with this.”
Arlina Carias identified herself as a director of nursing with expertise on child health, and said she would like to echo Gomez’ sentiments.
“I help clinicians understand not only the physical health needs of adolescent children … but also the psychosocial needs and developmental needs,” said Carias. She added that the board consider all types of children, from the naïve, to those with a history of sexual abuse, who will have access to Flamer.
“That may actually be very detrimental to all of those types of children and actually hurtful to their psyche,” she said, also proceeding to read off the passages she deems objectionable in the literature.
“I’m a person who does not believe in book banning,” said DeRosa. “However, at the same time, I can assure every person in this room that this does not belong in a library where a child under 18 has access.”
DeRosa proceeded to detail sexually explicit content found in Flamer, including, to his testimony, co-masturbation and oral sex between same-sex partners. DeRosa said he chooses “to answer to a higher power,” before stating, “Graphic books, especially those of a sexual nature have no place in our school libraries. They are inappropriate, and displace books that have educational value, and should be removed.”
Leave It To Professionals
A common contention among those in favor of keeping Flamer on shelves was parents who were trying to take it off did not have the credentials to say what is valuable material for schools to have access to.
Lozer said, “parents are bullying teachers they praised a few short years ago” when their kids were home during the pandemic, and the parents’ rights movement “asserts parents are similarly equipped to determine curriculum of professional educators” who are highly educated.
Alexander spoke of his time on the local school board, saying, “I never had to discuss a book, and that’s because the librarians and teachers you’ve hired are highly educated. He added that these specialists can correct their decisions, “which is part of the system.”
Alexander said there are specific rules for determining what is inappropriate, and while it is expected for members of the community to bring up concerns, professionals know what those rules are.
“I would lean on librarians to know whether these books fit that category or not,” Alexander said. “I wouldn’t profess to do their job any more than I would try to do the job of a pilot or a surgeon.”
Teachers need to feel comfortable and supported,” said Linda O’Sullivan.
Participants who wanted to keep Flamer, in particular, on the shelves often equated quality education with a diversity of material. Boyle stated that he supports “open, thorough education, which means reading all kinds of diverse information.”
“It probably is imperative that they have an adult guide them through in conversation of these points of view and these differences,” said Boyle.
Lozer said if her child found a book under scrutiny for “pornographic content” — an association she disagreed with — she would use the opportunity to “have a frank discussion about what I felt about the subject and teach my child how I think they should move about the world.”
“Hiding it from them will only cause them to get information from other kids or adults whose opinions differ from mine,” she said.
Alex Villamil said censorship “stunts the ability to understand and accept that which is unfamiliar” and “rewards conformity, punishes those who are different or think differently.” He said it is the school’s duty to support students and provide knowledge.
“The community, and actually the world, flourishes from a well-educated, empowered, and confident next generation,” Villamil said.
Some participants voiced that perhaps an ally could find the book and learn to respect others more, including Mason, who said he saw himself as a child in the book, when he was a bully. “There will definitely be kids who read these books like me who know how powerful words can be and who know how painful and hurtful those same words can be,” he said.
David Zupan, a parent participant, thanked educators for continuing to open his “daughters’ eyes to worlds they don’t see and can’t see because of their own experiences.”
Many participants against book-banning commended the work of the school system in providing a quality education for their students, while those who disagreed with Flamer’s message expressed that it is a detriment to Newtown education.
At the beginning of the meeting, Zukowski invited any children in the audience to speak first, as “there may be adult content and adult situations spoken of in this room” afterward, and “it is up to the parents to decide what to do with their children.
Instead, the younger attendees spoke during the end of meeting discourse. Among the students who participated, a total of three, voiced they were against book banning.
One Sandy Hook School student, Taylor McGrady, 9, accompanied by a friend of her age, did not reference any particular book that was under scrutiny. Instead, she made a recommendation of her own for those who wanted to be allies — to read Ban This Book by Alan Gratz about a fourth grader who confronts her board of education when it decides to ban a book.
Treasa O’Sullivan, a student at Newtown High School, suggested the explicit images DeRosa mentioned were inaccurate as described. She used irony to list books she thought should be banned “because of the same criteria,” including young adult favorites such as The Fault In Our Stars for its sexual content, and curriculum standards including The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Romeo and Juliet — condemning their themes including violence, death, and racial bullying.
“Children are reading books where people die, where people are raped and murdered, but when it comes to consensual healthy sex, we are so quick to shut the door?” Treasa asked.
Aidan Herbstman, another NHS student said that although “parents may not like to believe it,” students are “saying, hearing, and watching things that might be happening” in a book like Flamer. Aidan was another participant to state that “representation matters,” and said she has seen friends who don’t have a good relationship with their family take a mental health toll.
“First-hand, it’s really important for them to feel seen,” Aidan said, adding that if the board bans Flamer, it will cause more detriment than they realize.
McGrady said the board acts “based on the needs and wants of students in Newtown,” adding, “It’s very clear here tonight what those students want…”
Most perspectives offered during the public participation were advocating for either fully banning Flamer, or keeping it on the shelves. However, Lozer offered another solution that seemed to gain some traction.
“Create an app that connects to the library,” she said “Parents can go online, choose the books they don’t want their kids to read.”
Lozer said they can call the app the “do-not-check-out list” or “even better, ‘the parental rights list’ to keep it clean.” She said that with this app, when a child swipes their library card, it can flag certain books and the media specialist could then turn them away.
“If book banning is about parental rights, then all parents should be on board with this idea,” Lozer said.
“I agree with Danielle, let parents decide, have a checkout system, and there we go, everybody’s satisfied,” Nicole Maddox said.
“I think the best thing I heard… was the one person that talked about an app,” said Mark Carias, who objects to the content in Flamer.
After hearing the testimony, the board will have an opportunity at a subsequent meeting to discuss and move on whether or not the book should be banned in the district.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at email@example.com.