BOE Ties On All Motions, Amendments Along Party Lines: Still No Action On Challenged Books
UPDATE: This report was updated at 11:15 am on May 22 to make corrections to a misspelled word, along with a reference to the Miller Test, and an attribution from school board chair regarding a Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table age reference.
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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part report on the May 16 Board of Education meeting, focusing primarily on the actions and discussion among board members present.
The Board of Education did not successfully address challenges requesting removal of the graphic novels Flamer and Blankets during its May 16 meeting. This was due to numerous tie votes over motions and amendments offered by board members present, which for this meeting was comprised of six members.
In anticipation of a larger crowd, the meeting was held in the Newtown High School cafetorium instead of at the municipal center. That relocated meeting was preceded by a rally organized by the Newtown Democratic Town Committee.
The rally, which drew dozens of participants, was organized to show support for retaining previously challenged books that are under consideration for removal from the Newtown High School library.
Once the meeting convened, it was announced that Board Member Donald Ramsey was absent due to a “serious personal issue,” according to Board Member Janet Kuzma. Kuzma proposed the board postpone the vote again in light of Ramsey’s absence, a motion then unanimously rejected by board members.
At that point, the board resumed discussion of the books on the agenda, and the unanimous recommendation of a special review committee that unanimously endorsed keeping both books on the Newtown High School shelves.
“The special review committee was by policy only able to vote yes or no … The policy gives no limitations on the Board [of Education’s] standard practices regarding action taken,” said Board of Education Chair Deborra Zukowski, in her opening statement regarding Flamer.
Board Member Dan Cruson said one of his key takeaways from the special review committee’s report was neither of the challenged books would be considered legally obscene according to the “Miller Test.” Established in the 1973 Supreme Court Case Miller v California, if a work can not pass it then it retains it's protection under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“We had been advised by counsel previously that this would be an important justification for the removal as well as defending against potential legal challenges that come if we make such a decision,” said Cruson. Cruson went on to detail his analysis of how each work in question did not meet the three qualifiers of obscenity during the discussion about Flamer and the discussion about Blankets respectively.
He said if the books are removed, he assumed there will be a legal battle regarding inappropriate removal and the board will lose after spending a lot of time and money.
Kuzma then proposed to retain Flamer, with the caveat that students age 16 and under would require written consent by a parent or guardian. She said this will allow parents to be made aware of the content first.
“I am not violating First Amendment rights … as I am not voting to suppress ideas but rather evaluate the methods in which they are taught,” said Kuzma, who added she also sought legal advice and believes the book to contain sexually explicit material.
She said she is not anti-LGBTQ, and not one public comment had objected to the LGBTQ theme.
“It’s time we acknowledge this is not the reason for this concern. It’s why we aren’t seeing 23 objections,” said Kuzma. She was citing the number of LGBTQ books, according to her, that one can find in the catalog at the high school.
She said she is elected to “represent many voices,” and asked the board to “consider the implications of completely ignoring the parents on one side of this issue.”
Larkin supported the amendment and agreed the books do contain sexually explicit content, and urged board members to “consider a compromise.”
Cruson said he appreciated “the attempt at a compromise,” a sentiment that would be echoed by Board Member Alison Plante. Cruson said the idea of parents to “opt-in” to Flamer is “shaky legal ground,” and when it comes to sexual education and cultural enrichment events, parents aren’t asked to opt-in.
Motion: Too Restrictive
Plante suggested Kuzma’s motion was too restrictive, later saying she is depending on the unanimous recommendation of the special review committee and the superintendent to keep the books in the library.
Plante and Board Member John Vouros both commented on existing mechanisms that serve as parental controls to limit access to certain materials in school. Mechanisms they detailed included opting-out of library books, and requesting their child be exempt from participating in a class where they are at risk of hearing or seeing something objectionable to parents.
“Let the parents decide so we can move on,” said Vouros. “It’s all about the children, and you’ve heard them, you’ve listened to them. They know best.”
“I can’t support thinking that anybody in this district should be making decisions for other people’s children unless parents have given you that consent to do so,” said Larkin.
Kuzma said, “the parents don’t know these books exist, and therefore they cannot opt-in.” She said her concern was that kids could “thumb-through” books at the library without parental knowledge. This is a concept Zukowski would later reference as Ramsey’s “core concern” — one he discussed at a previous meeting.
“I cannot believe that they would just walk in there, take a book off the shelf, when they have this [smartphone] which is so much more graphic than anything you have in that library,” said Vouros about high schoolers.
“Some parents are very strict about what they allow their kids to see on their [mobile] phones,” said Kuzma in her response.
Zukowski said she agrees that Flamer is not obscene or pornographic, but said the book does include explicit sexual content. She said one scene was a “full scene of masturbation,” which “fits the definition of sexually explicit.”
She said she received a letter from a high schooler who said she goes to the library during her free periods. “There is a lot of information I think would be relevant that the process does not give us access to,” said Zukowski.
Zukowski said as far as she knows, the district’s wifi system filters out sexual images, which was contested by multiple students and community members who said they had successfully tried searching for sexually explicit content at the meeting during the second public participation.
She returned to her concern about age-appropriateness from a prior meeting, and referenced a group she identified as the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table, which she said has over 1,000 members around the world and is associated with the American Libraries Association.
Zukowski said she believes "there was sexually explicit content in Flamer." She then said the Round Table group suggests particular sexual content in a work may receive a rating of "Mature" — classifying that material as appropriate for readers 17 and above.
The chair then cited that Roundtable criteria as a reason why she feels the graphic content in Flamer — particularly the section containing references to masturbation — is not appropriate for “young children,” 13, or 14 years old.
Cruson countered that there is no organization all publishers voluntarily participate in — and there is no universal rating system for books and graphic novels.
Zukowski asked whether there were books that could “provide comparable value that do not include sexual content,” which Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti said was a difficult question to answer, and that would take library media specialists “an extensive amount of time to review.”
“The overriding opinion ... particularly with Flamer, was it tells a unique autobiographical story that fits the time that we live in and would be helpful to students,” said Uberti.
A motion to retain Flamer on the shelves with the 16 and under caveat failed as Kuzma, Larkin, and Zukowski voted in favor and Plante, Vouros, and Cruson were opposed. Larkin then proposed an amendment requiring written consent for students ages 15 and under.
“I don’t want to remove the book, but we need to come to a compromise,” said Larkin, citing those who have concerns about the content of the graphic novel. “I didn’t hear many voices even acknowledge those concerns,” she added.
“As Ms Kuzma said, we do represent all of the community, and for us to be completely dismissive of the people who had concerns and not problem-solve for them is not something I’m willing to do,” Larkin said, adding she would like to leave with a decision and expressed that a compromise was necessary.
Vouros proposed keeping the books but forming a committee of parents and educators who are both pro and con to discuss age restrictions.
“We had a committee, it gave us a decision,” said Plante, who said she appreciates “the spirit of compromise.”
“What I’m uncomfortable with is the board wading into … an operational area over which we don’t have responsibility,” said Plante, who added they have hired administrators to deal with operational matters.
“I’m actually really comfortable with it being 15 [years of age]; I couldn’t defend 15 as a starting point … It’s a much easier defense at 16 as the age of consent,” said Larkin.
Cruson said he is uncomfortable with an “opt-in process,” that age won’t make a difference to him, and he agrees with Plante.
The motion to amend on the 15 and under idea failed with the same split, prompting Larkin to ask those who voted against if there was a compromise they were comfortable with, that was not part of an existing mechanism, and that acknowledges there is sexually explicit content and “extreme” vulgarity in Flamer.
She asked why they would make materials available to students with the vulgarity level she noted, to which an audience member said “First Amendment.”
“There are off-ramps in the First Amendment which I think a lot of people’s legal advice didn’t tell them because it didn’t suit their narrative, so I’m not particularly worried about the First Amendment,” said Larkin, which prompted a reaction from some audience members.
Zukowski called to clear the room besides the press, then changed her mind while members of the crowd voiced they were adamant to stay. She called for the audience members to act “civilly.”
Larkin said, to clarify, that she does care about the First Amendment, and part of the legal advice the board received around the First Amendment “did have off-ramps when sexually explicit content and extreme vulgarity were introduced.”
“I don’t want to pull the books, I just don’t think it’s age-appropriate at a younger age,” said Larkin, who again asked for compromise from other board members, questioning if they were voting “in a block.”
Vouros said what he goes back to is “the trust parents will know best what is right for their child” and says he can work with parents if they need help as he is qualified. “If it doesn’t work, we can revisit,” said Vouros.
“I don’t know if there is a compromise other than what already exists. I just haven’t heard one yet,” said Cruson. “I’m not saying I am fully opposed to one, but an opt-in is not something I am comfortable with, so if it is another age opt-in, no, I would not support the motion.”
“If there’s a compromise that can make sure they can limit access to it for their kids while leaving open access to all of the other students, I could see my way clear to agree,” said Cruson, who referenced he understood there were already procedures in place.
Zukowski said the procedures were in place “somewhat opaquely.”Uberti then clarified this policy.
“There is an opportunity for parents to reach out to library media specialists regarding different issues with books. To be fair, that has never been something that we have used for this purpose,” said Uberti.
Uberti said if a fourth grader reads too many graphic novels, a parent may ask the library media specialist to encourage them to read something else. She said a compromise may be to allow parents to provide a list of books they would like their children not to be allowed access to in the library.
“It would be interesting to see how many high school parents come up with lists of books. If we have hundreds of lists of books, we have a problem. If we have two, we have hopefully satisfied those parents’ concerns,” said Uberti.
“This is a compromise at the policy level. For these two particular books, no list is necessary,” said Zukowski.
“What we can do is say ‘I move to amend the motion by adding parents who wish their children not to access Flamer provide written notification to the library media specialists at the high school,’” Zukowski said, and Uberti asked her to specify checking it out as they cannot monitor access.
Kuzma expressed she is still uncomfortable with the amendment, and the motion to retain the book Flamer at the Newtown High School library failed along the same party line split. The same motion failed for the retention of Blankets after further discussion of that work.
Plante said she doesn’t believe consensus is achievable, nor was it a priority for the Board of Education.
“One group’s preferences and rights cannot infringe on the rights of others,” said Plante. She brought up that the books are not part of the curriculum, and that Flamer has never been checked out at the library, and Blankets hadn’t been checked out for eight years.
Plante referenced some of the book challengers asserting that exposure to the books would create emotional disturbance, sexual misdemeanors, and poor coping skills in children. She said she asked a high school crisis counselor, who advised her she could not recall “any instances of any student she has counseled who said they were influenced by a book” and “that’s not how it happens.”
Plante said books may actually have a protective effect for teens with suicidal ideation, compensating for a lack of social or family support if the reader can identify with the book and quoted a study from International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health to corroborate this.
Plante cited the special review committee’s observations about the resiliency of the protagonist in Flamer, and agreed the books are not obscene.
“These books, when taken as a whole, do have substantial literary value as evidenced by the numerous awards they’ve won,” she said, adding that it was the unanimous decision of the committee, making the board’s decision “very clear.”
“Our default position must be that books are good, and we should move toward more access, and not less,” said Plante, who referenced different parts of the special review committee’s report in support of her viewpoint.
“Removing books or putting them on a restricted shelf can create stigma around a topic and stifle conversations,” she said.
Cruson moved that the Board of Education accept the recommendation of the special review committee, which was rejected with the same 3-3 split. According to Zukowski — who said she got advice from a lawyer — ties mean no action could be taken.
“We will have to have another meeting where we may or may not be able to take action,” said Zukowski. Melillo confirmed her assessment.
“Without consensus, the books remain status quo, but we have not completed the policy as it is laid out,” said Melillo, who added that legal advice was to have another board meeting to come to a consensus.
No motions were added, and the second public participation session began.
Full reporting on both sessions of public participation will appear in the May 26 print edition of The Newtown Bee, and online at newtownbee.com.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.