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Rumors About School Library Book Banning Brings Participants, Perspectives To BOE Meeting



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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.

‘Representation Matters’

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.

‘Unsuitable’ Content

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.

Student Voices

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 noelle@thebee.com.

Nicole Maddox is pictured speaking to the Board of Education, with members Janet Kuzma and Jennifer Larkin in view. —Bee Photos, Veillette
Pictured is Melissa Gomez, who identified herself as the original objector in the district to Flamer, the controversial graphic novel.
Alina Carias echoed many of Melissa Gomez's sentiments against the book, and talked about how exposure could influence childhood development.
Glen Doyle said that to banning a book would be "anti-democratic", and "anti-republic," limiting a student's freedom.
Comments are open. Be civil.
  1. qstorm says:

    This is not about free speech. It is about secret grooming in the library. Should a child become aware of this material it should be up to the parents to provide access by purchasing said material. As a taxpayer in Newtown I do not approve of the school system purchasing and providing this material. The ‘pros’ are running the asylum.

  2. mtaylor says:

    Clearly a biased article. Plenty of misrepresentation despite the attempt to quote those looking to “ban books”. This is not about book banning, LGBTQ population or any other population, what this is about is very sexually explicit language and imagery. Do yourselves a favor, read this book and others discussed and judge for yourselves (oh and look at the imagery). All have voiced being in favor of LGBTQ representation and of all of all populations in school libraries, some just feel schools should not have materials that are highly sexually explicit and crude. Pro diversity? Yes, absolutely. Pro sexually explicit content for kids? No. Again please read for yourselves and do not allow others to disguise the real issue as one that is completely different

    1. nb.john.voket says:

      You state the article is “biased” and contains “plenty of misrepresentations” – but you fail to evidence any. Please know that both The Newtown Bee’s Editor and the reporter on this story are ready and willing to sit with you and review the article so we can identify any biases and misrepresentations with the goal to learn, better identify, and avoid them in future reporting. When would you like to visit?

      1. ryan knapp says:

        To start the article uses specific terminology that betrays biases by aligning language with those trying to frame the issue in a way that supports their specific position, trivializing the concern while sensationalizing the response. As far as I know Newtown does not have a “ban” policy, the policy in question is 8-302 “selection of library media resources” which has provisions for challenging materials by members of staff or the community. No where does it say “ban,” but that is the author’s characterization. A “ban” by definition would be a legal prohibition, while a policy decision would deselect the material and remove from general circulation in the library, in this case due to objections to the sexually explicit content, but nothing in the policy would prohibit it from being in the guidance office or parents from buying the book for their kids. “Book banning” is a term used to straw-man specific concerns consistent with a broader national narrative. Note it was not used during the tumult around Dr Seuss, I suspect because it was largely a different group of parents expressing their concerns.

        1. nb.john.voket says:

          We humbly suggest our dedicated and long-serving council member consider treading more thoughtfully when characterizing The Bee’s content and narrowly defining terminology he does not like. There are numerous definitions of “ban” and “banning” that precisely align to the intentions of some Newtown residents / constituents, as well as many others across the state and nation. Whether you choose to define library book banning as “legal prohibition” or prefer to view local efforts as a movement to influence a “policy decision,” we stand by our reporting as accurate and fair — along with a related editorial. In re-reading both, we never trivialized the concerns of those objecting to certain books being in school or public libraries. We simply believe books a parent finds objectionable should be discussed at and prohibited from their own home — not from libraries.

          1. ryan knapp says:

            While we may disagree, I appreciate the dialogue. The problem with the position of prohibiting books at home but allowing access to them in schools is it allows staff to override the wishes of some parents to raise children consistent with their values. Conversely if parents want to show their children this sexually explicit material they can in their own homes without making it available for all kids.

            Irregardless of how broadly one reads the definitions, and perhaps the author did not intend to, but the word choices align with specific contemporary rhetoric, conscious or not. To many readers these rhetorical choices came off as a bias in favor of a particular group and I hope the Bee, in its humble desire to serve the entire Newtown community, would strive to avoid the such a perception as reflected in the responses to this article (here and online) and effort to not alienate a large part of its readership. I believe local journalism is important and that it should be open to criticism lest it be dismissed as partisan like so many national news organizations.

      2. blukes says:

        As I first read this article (before all the comments were posted) I too thought this article was biased. The biggest reason being that there are 45 quotes from people whom want to keep the book in the school libraries (this includes seven from people at the end regarding the app as they too want to keep the book in the library) while there are 14 quotes from people whom do not want this book in the school libraries. There are three times as many quotes from people whom want the book in the libraries compared to not. This very large difference is the main reason I thought this article is biased. However, if there were three times as many speakers at this meeting in favor of the book being in the library then I would feel differently – it would be great and helpful if this context was added to the article. Also, I agree with Mr. Knapp – using the term “ban, banned, banning” or similar throughout the article puts a NEGATIVE connotation on anyone who opposes this type of sexual content in the public school libraries.

        1. blukes says:

          Let me clarify, I counted 45 and 14 quotes. I could have misinterpreted a couple of quotes, I am a human, I am not perfect and I have my own biases just like everyone else . Regardless, there is a 3:1 or very close to a 3:1 ratio

      3. blukes says:

        Mr. Voket, here is me trying to be as objective as I can to tell you why I feel this article is biased:
        1) there exists a controversial topic regarding certain books in public school libraries here in Newtown. Some feel these books should be in the libraries, some feel they should not be
        2) you declare, in one of your comments to Ryan Knapp, The Bee has taken a stance on this topic and aligns itself with the side that feels these books should be in the libraries – “We simply believe books a parent finds objectionable should be discussed at and prohibited from their own home — not from libraries.” Yes this comment was made after the article was published but it is not a stretch to say The Bee held these beliefs before the article was written
        3) The Bee publishes an article summarizing a BoE meeting where this controversial topic was discussed with parents, students, and residents of Newtown
        4) the article contains 45 quotes from people that agree with The Bee’s stance
        5) the article contains 14 quotes from people that disagree with The Bee’s stance
        6) the article contains no inflammatory or negative terminology to describe those that agree with The Bee’s stance
        7) the article repeatedly contains inflammatory and negative terminology to describe those that disagree with The Bee’s stance (ban, banned, banning…)
        9) the article gives no context to how many speakers at the BoE meeting want these books in the library compared to not
        10) the article gives no context to the rules/regulations/guidelines that must be followed to accept/keep a book in the libraries

        Item 9 is important because it provides context as the whether or not the number of quotes from people agreeing with The Bee’s stance is representative of the speakers at the BoE meeting. I will subjectively say that the omission of this context can be interpreted as bias since this context can be detrimental to The Bee’s stance.

        Item 10 is important because it provides everyone context of whether or not this book should have been in the library in the first place and whether it should remain. I will subjectively say that the book probably should not have been in the library to begin with and that the omission of this context can be interpreted as bias since this context can be detrimental to The Bee’s stance.

        The fact that you stated The Bee has taken a stance on this issue should make you question if this article is biased. The fact that several readers feel this article is biased should further make you question if this article is biased. Yes, The Bee can be biased and produce an impartial article at the same. However, I just don’t see that with this article.

        Hopefully you find my comment objective and respond to it. I genuinely enjoy The Bee and am a regular reader. However, I find this article concerning due to the bias that I see/interpret. This only leads to me questioning other articles, both past and future.

        1. nb.john.voket says:

          You missed a key point in our editorial position – which btw, is the product of a consensus among members of the editorial board and not mine as the editor: “Any energy promoting the removal of library materials that may offend a relative handful of community members could be better spent supporting the most stringent and rigorous review possible, involving library professionals, when and if you believe we should all be shielded from accessing certain content.”

          1. qstorm says:

            Any energy promoting the inclusion of school library materials that may satisfy a relative handful of community members (which includes school administrators, teachers and ‘library professionals’ as well as ideologues) could be better spent supporting the most stringent and rigorous review possible, involving parents and taxpayers, when and if you believe children should not be permitted to access certain content. Move this stuff to Booth and make it their problem to manage. Oh, it is already there.

  3. ryan knapp says:

    What strange times considering last summer people defended tossing out a literal dumpster full of books at the MS. I find it ironic that many of the same people who supported curriculum audits, removing Dr Seuss and other material they deem offensive are suddenly free speech advocates when it comes to sexually explicit graphic novels where even the publisher does not recommend it for kids under 14

  4. voter says:

    “Book banning” is an inflammatory way to describe “disallowing obscenity” Connecticut State law defines obscenity in plain language, and has specific law against exposing minor children to obscenity. Quoting one of many similar sources “Case law makes clear that the First Amendment does not protect obscene expression” The obscenity proponents cling to a frayed thread thinking that by using this sort of inflammatory language they will force the concerned parents to shut up.

  5. yhwy19 says:

    Not only do I believe a growing number of parents think saying “no” to their children is a bad thing, but apparently the parents were never told no themselves.
    Some parents seem to believe that promoting and distributing pornographic materials, as long as it’s in book form and promoting certain beliefs, behaviors and lifestyles, is okay because they can’t seem to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the over sexualization of children. ANY minors, male or female, vividly depicted in sexual acts and speaking in such a crude way, may well portray some real life situations, but why on God’s green earth would we promote it in our public schools??
    The bigger picture: sexual images of any nature involving any parties does serious and very often irreparable harm to the minds of those 25 and younger whose brains are still developing. Has anyone researched the effects of exposure to sexualized images on children? It’s quite easy to do.
    We know that there are specific rehab facilities for people who have sexual addictions, yet some parents in Newtown are touting “rights” and “don’t ban books”.
    What about when this book becomes a movie? Will the Media Specialist be first in line to get us a copy to be shown in the auditorium?
    History shows that many of the societies that are no longer with us were “free thinkers” with a penchant for an open display of sex, orgies and prostitution as a way of life. Why has our society continued to spiral downward, accepting anything? Tune in, turn on, drop out they said. America doesn’t have a sex problem, it has a sin problem.

  6. blukes says:

    I have an idea that should appease everyone: put books in our school libraries that cover experiences of the LQBT community, that can help people cope with their everyday lives, that can help make people feel accepted, and so on, but do not have this type of sexualized content. Some sexual content is ok but content meant for kids that people can easily describe as pornography or smut? Just leave it out. And what does it add for the kids? If this were the case then we wouldn’t be having these conversations and kids can have a resource to better help them throughout childhood.

  7. qstorm says:

    I submit that one cannot ‘ban’ a book from a school library. The school library is not the equivalent of a public library. Parents have started to see what has been happening at the hands of the school administration and library. I have followed the high school ‘summer reading list’ for a couple years now and for the most part it was DEI and BIPOC with a little bit of LBGTQ content.

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