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Six Former BOE Leaders Join To Endorse Committee Weighing Book Challenges



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In an unprecedented effort, six former Newtown Board of Education leaders joined together backing a school district special review committee’s recent decision to deem two books appropriate for inclusion in the Newtown High School library.

Those books, Flamer, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Mike Curato, and Blankets, an autobiographical graphic novel by Craig Thompson, were previously challenged by more than 60 opponents for removal.

Those former BOE Chairs, Michelle Embree Ku (2017-’21), Keith Alexander (2014-’17), Debbie Leidlein (2011-’14), Bill Hart (2010-’11), Lillian Bittman (2009-’10), and Alan Martin (1976-’80) delivered a co-signed Letter to the Editor of The Newtown Bee April 26, urging current school board members to “uphold the unanimous recommendation from the Special Review Committee, and support the district staff’s professional judgment.”

On April 20, that special review committee held a public meeting to review books recently challenged by Newtown community members. Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti detailed the process that had led up to the formation of the committee, consisting of herself, Principal Kimberly Longobucco, Newtown High School Library Media Specialist Liza Zandonella, and two NHS teachers: English Department Chair Abigail Marks, and David Foss, a social studies teacher.

After an e-mail from a local resident who “expressed concern about the graphic content” in the graphic novel Flamer, the Newtown Middle School library media specialist and a building administrator decided to remove the book from the Newtown Middle School library. The media specialist and principal decided conversely March 27 to retain Flamer on Newtown High School shelves.

Blankets, another challenged book on the high school library shelves was also deemed appropriate and remained in circulation after review by the principal and library media specialist.

Since the objections over the two books were not satisfied at the building level, forms for reconsideration were filed by objectors, which prompted the review of the book by a special committee assembled by Uberti. Uberti said that following this decision, she received one citizen’s request for reconsideration for Blankets and nine requests for Flamer.

Uberti said on May 2, she will report the outcome of the meeting to the Board of Education, where Superintendent Chris Melillo will make a recommendation to the board for consideration and action. After the board takes action, the objectors will be notified of results.

The board reviewed objections to the book Flamer as detailed in their reconsideration forms. According to Uberti, eight objectors cited exposure to Flamer may result in readers having “poor coping skills, emotional disturbance, poor boundaries, and sexual misdemeanors.”

“All objectors believe the theme of the book is pornography and sexually explicit,” said Uberti, adding that objectors stated they had each read the entire book. To date, none of the objectors have recommended or suggested a replacement for Blankets or Flamer in the school libraries.

Zandonella stated she disagreed with the objection of Blankets because they had not read the entire work.

“It’s very easy for someone to take parts of a work, particularly images, out of context,” she said, stating that Blankets is “an autobiographical work in graphic-novel format,” which had received “many professional endorsements and recommendations.” Zandonella detailed many of the accolades and endorsements during her time speaking at the meeting.

“It is not pornographic,” she added.

According to the library specialist, Blankets had been checked out twice by separate students in 2014 and 2015. She said Flamer was purchased in 2022 as part of the district’s DEI initiative, and has not been checked out by a student yet. Longobucco said she checked out the book recently from the library to review it before sitting with the committee.

Longobucco pointed out that Blankets remains on the shelves in eight other communities’ school libraries “geographically close to Newtown.”

Challenge Document Concerns

Zandonella said it appeared one objector to Flamer crossed out questions on the challenge request form instead of answering them, and the other seven answered “identically, verbatim on their individual forms.”

“Based on the responses, it appears the objectors did not either read the book, or, even more disturbing, did, and objected to the book using very harsh language, which can be viewed by some as very anti-LGBTQ rhetoric,” said Zandonella, who added the right to express an opinion should not be imposed on others in a democratic society.

Zandonella referenced societal consequences of censorship, and cited rising suicide rates among young adults, divisiveness, and violence as real problems to collectively address. She recommended the book as age-appropriate for high schoolers, and advocated that the title should remain in the library.

“What message would it send to them if they were denied access to the only LGBTQ title of the ten Nutmeg Award Nominees?” queried Zandonella, who speculated it would have an “extremely negative” impact on the students and Newtown’s reputation.

Committee members confirmed each had read the book after prompting by the assistant superintendent. Uberti recalled before reading Flamer, she read quotes and saw illustrations.

“I have to admit I was very, very surprised by the illustrations because I didn’t know what I was looking at,” Uberti said.

“As an adult I feel like I should know this lesson, but context matters, because once I read the book, my opinion changed greatly,” she said. Uberti expressed that she approached reading the book assuming it didn’t belong in the NHS library.

“I finished feeling very differently,” said the assistant superintendent. She said that some of the quotes cited by the public at hearings “are not in the context of the book,” as they are not sexual acts happening in the books, but rather, bullying, the character’s thoughts, or humor.

Uberti said there was nothing in the book she had not heard sixth grade boys “saying to each other out of meanness or out of joking-ness” after having taught at that level. She cited the overall theme as “very powerful” — a sentiment echoed by other committee members — and that Flamer is “at its core, a coming-of-age novel.”

“Because he doesn’t know he’s gay and everyone else does, he is picked on,” she said about the main character. Uberti said the book reminded her about a personal experience that resonated with her from childhood. In her review, Marks also described a personal story from growing up during the mid-1990s — the time period during which Flamer is set.

Not For Middle Schoolers

Uberti said she agreed with the book’s rating of age 14 and up, and for the book to remain off the shelves in middle school. Longobucco agreed, expressing that it is relevant to present to high schoolers.

“It is critical that our students can read books that support what is going on in their lives, and this is real,” she said, adding that students at NHS experience and struggle with topics addressed in the books.

“I do think the storyline after reading the whole thing comes from a supportive, dedicated, and helpful place,” said Longobucco, who added that the book is a library option and is not used in class.

“There is a distinction for how books are selected for curriculum versus how books are selected for the library,” Uberti remarked. Marks disagreed with the objector targeting Flamer who suggested poor coping skills and emotional disturbances could result from exposure to the graphic novel.

“I actually think the character is particularly resilient considering all that he deals with,” she said, adding that she thought the main character shows “really positive coping skills” through his love of nature and his Boy Scouts troop.

She cited a quote at the end of the book, where the main character is involved in a fight, and “it’s his own soul that saves him.”

“I certainly didn’t see [pornography] in the book,” said Foss, who also expressed he does not find the objected parts objectionable.

Uberti asked Zandonella about how images in the book, which were a concern for objectors, fit in her assessment. Zandonella replied that graphic novels present a “user-friendly” format, and the book was only checked out twice, but is a Nutmeg nominee for the high school age group.

Longobucco referenced her time as a health teacher. She said she is fairly well-versed in data relating to when students become sexually active or explore, and affirmed that the district’s health curriculum supports the data.

“I will tell you that the images our students see in health class are more descript than the images that are in either of these books and they are completely appropriate and used for the betterment of our students,” Uberti said. “We are naïve to think that students are not seeing these things on their own in health classes, on their phones, with their friends, exploring on their own and that is really very age-appropriate for students between 14 and 19 years old.”

“Context in the law matters,” Uberti said, after discussing if the definitions of “obscene” or “pornographic” apply to Flamer. “The theme of the book is not one that would meet the legal definition of being pornographic.”

Uberti said the book being on the Connecticut Governor’s list “is pretty good evidence that the book is not pornographic.” The assistant superintendent said she wondered about the results of exposure for high school students.

“I actually think it would be beneficial,” said Uberti, adding that she thought it could increase anything. Zandonella said the strongest message of Flamer is “our words and actions matter, and they can hurt.”

Longobucco said most students would not be uncomfortable reading the book as they often discuss objected topics, while adults may be more uncomfortable.

Content Out Of Context

The objector of Blankets, who stated they did not read the entire work, felt, according to Uberti, that “the result of the exposure to this work might be exposing minors to graphic material.”

Foss called objected scenes in Blankets as “incidental to the book” and did not find pornography. Longobucco expressed concern the only objector to Blankets did not finish the book.

“If students read two pages out of what we assign them, they’re probably not going to get the context we want them to get,” said Longobucco.

She said she hopes when and if there are future book challenges, objectors read the books in totality, looking for the message and larger picture “versus just grabbing select images and running with those.”

“I could take a lot of select images from a lot of different things and they could look very hurtful to a lot of different people without the storyline behind it,” said Longobucco.

Longobucco said there are breasts and “clear depictions of penises” in Blankets. She said this is what students are expected to know to “become mature, healthy individuals and students,” and that in her opinion, the images do not rise to the level of pornography.

“I was surprised that it was challenged, especially for sexual content,” said Uberti regarding Blankets.

Ultimately, the review committee agreed both books are appropriate for the high school library and should remain.

That opinion is shared by the six former school board chairs who voiced their support in a letter published in this edition.

The group defended the work of school library professionals and educators in the district, stating, “The librarians and teachers that the district hires are highly educated professionals who spend years preparing to teach and ultimately working with students.

“Their expertise includes choosing reading materials that provide a wide range of levels of difficulty, diversity of appeal, and different points of view,” the letter continues. “These diverse perspectives help students gain insight into themselves as well as the lives and challenges facing others.”

The opening statement of that group letter reiterates a line from the Board of Education’s own policy, “The principle of freedom to read and the professional judgment of the staff must be defended.”

Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Abigail Marks, Kimberly Longobucco, Anne Uberti, Liza Zandonella, and David Foss comprised the special review committee for books recently challenged at Newtown High School.
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1 comment
  1. hiltonius says:

    great job, noelle. thanks for the information. sad to see the newtown district giving in to unnecessary censorship and narrow-mindedness. even sadder to see names i know associated with this, people who should know better.

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