Board Of Education Taking More Time To Consider Book Challenges
The Board of Education meeting on May 2 drew a crowd that overflowed from the Council Chambers into the halls of the Municipal Center. Most of them were presumably there to hear more about possible school board action on challenged books.
What they got was more wait and see than any solid indication of an outcome or decision.
Two weeks prior, a special review committee including Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti, as well as the Newtown High School principal, library media specialist, and two teachers, unanimously concluded the books Flamer and Blankets should remain on NHS shelves.
May 2 was the day a report of their consensus and recommendation was to be presented to the board and Superintendent. Ultimately, it is up to the Board of Education whether these books will remain accessible to students.
Because of the volume of attendees, Chair Deborra Zukowski said speakers would be limited to two minutes instead of the usual three allotted for individual public participation. Some who previously spoke during previous meetings did so again, echoing and expanding upon previous sentiments.
Four individuals who supported removing the books spoke at the meeting.
Michelle Buzzi said she read both books, and concluded they were not appropriate. She cited “gratuitous vulgarity” in Flamer and depictions of sexual abuse in Blankets, and said she thinks the books are for adults.
Calling the books “a symptom of the disease,” Rachel Hegland suggested they would not be in school libraries if the lead characters weren’t LGBTQ. She referred to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives as “the elephant in the room,” infiltrating schools with a “politically charged agenda” and “a slippery slope to indoctrination.”
“I embrace everybody and I think everybody should, but it’s going about it in a very wrong direction,” said Hegland.
Terri Scinto thought images in the books diminished the LGBTQ community when she said that community needs support, adding that 10-20 years ago, the books would only be available in adult bookstores. She said “violations of federal obscenity laws are a federal offense,” and requested an audit of the NHS library for “obscene” books.
Abby Schnault said she doesn’t raise her concern with an “Orwellian wish” to ban books, and said obscene graphics are not necessary to educate. She said she assumes ninth graders aren’t shown R-rated films in class.
“There’s enough sexualization in this world already,” said Schnault, who said she stands in solidarity with gay moms. She voiced that claims of homophobia were inaccurate, as they do not address removing unnecessary content.
Most of those in support of retaining the library materials reflected remarks previously articulated in The Newtown Bee’s coverage of the issue, and/or those of supporters contributing to the newspaper’s “Letter Hive.”
Five students spoke, two from the middle school and three from the high school. Every student who participated was in favor of keeping the books on the library shelves.
Five library media specialists also spoke, and described their treatment by objectors of the book. Five non-library teachers also spoke, with all but one being an English teacher.
A former Newtown school teacher spoke on behalf of the books, as well. All teachers and school staff who spoke appeared to be in favor of keeping the books. Other community members also spoke in favor of their retention.
Review Committee Presents
Uberti presented the special review committee report about the books, and summarized what was discussed at its meeting two weeks prior. She then gave a personal statement. Later, during board discussion, Uberti said the library media specialist is the “objective professional” as board members questioned the books’ appropriateness.
Both Superintendent of Schools Chris Melillo and Uberti expressed they had changed their minds after completely reading the materials to be in support of their existence at NHS. Melillo said he made the mistake of first reviewing text and pictures out of context.
In his recommendation for the board to uphold the committee’s recommendation, Melillo said there are times where materials and activities in schools may conflict with families’ personal beliefs.
Zukowski said she did not feel the board would be able to decide on the matter right away “given its complexity,” stated action would be taken at the subsequent meeting, but asserted the board would discuss the matter that evening.
Board Member Alison Plante then moved that the vote be taken, and was seconded by member Dan Cruson. She said she felt informed by reporting in The Newtown Bee despite being absent from the special review committee meeting — that she felt comfortable voting, and that it was “damaging” to “drag out” the vote further.
The motion did not pass however, as other board members insisted on needing more time to hear more public voices and to consider their decision.
“With a decision this size, we do need to take the time,” said Board Member Jennifer Larkin, one member who did not support holding the vote that night. She pointed out that board members did not get materials ahead of time, and in order to do due diligence to the process, the vote should be postponed.
Since the motion did not pass, discussion proceeded as planned without a scheduled vote. Each board member had the opportunity to state their ideas and questions on the two books.
In her statement, Zukowski emphasized the board should be “guided by what these terms actually mean” in regards to pornography and sexually inappropriate content, reviewing these definitions from the dictionary.
Zukowski stated she does not believe the concern for pornography holds for Flamer. Regarding sexually inappropriate content, Zukowski referenced Connecticut state statutes about what qualifies as sexual acts.
The chair emphasized context, but that definitions matter, and agreed the book might be helpful. But for younger students “the graphic representations are not educationally suitable,” and detailed the sexual acts in the books according to the statutes.
She then asked the board to consider what age is appropriate for the material.
About the book Flamer, Board Member Donald Ramsey agreed while the book “did not have any malevolent intent to do harm to others,” and was semi-autobiographical, he thought a student flipping through the book may experience a “major impact,” and that he hopes the issue will be addressed with a “healing approach.”
Similarly, Ramsey said his main concern was “unfettered,” “improper,” and “random” access of the book Blankets. Although he said the book may do good on one side, children who flip through, for instance, may be damaged.
He suggested what some younger readers might see could cause “confusion” and be “potentially dangerous.”
Board Member Janet Kuzma said she could easily see why objectors were concerned about Flamer, saying she does “find value in the subject in the book.”
Kuzma said she agreed with a lot of what Ramsey thought about Blankets, and although she understands “it can be helpful,” she referred to the objector concerned about sexually explicit images.
“Almost every page I stopped on had a vulgarity or naked body part, and it took me back a little,” said Kuzma. She, like Zukowski, speculated on the age-appropriateness of the work.
Larkin thought Flamer was “responsibly written for the theme,” and agreed the book could “save lives” as claimed inside, but found aspects of the work inappropriate despite a good story line.
“I don’t think that schools or places of employment are free speech zones. They are, but with consequences,” said Larkin, who talked about a need for high community standards.
Plante agreed with the need to enforce community standards, but with a shifted focus, and discussed the value of the texts potentially outweighing risks.
“The most important community standard is the 1st Amendment and fighting against censorship,” said Plante.
Plante reminded the board the policy was followed and there was a majority report from the special committee without any minority opinion. She said she looks forward to upholding the process.
Both Cruson and Board Member John Vouros, who participated by phone, abstained from speaking on the issue during the meeting, reserving their comments for the upcoming session.
After all opinions were stated among board members, they engaged in a discussion and posed questions to each other in preparation of their vote. Questions asked included whether or not removing books from shelves violated First Amendment rights and the age appropriateness of the books in question, among others.
The next Board of Education meeting is May 16 at 7 pm.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.