Book Challenge Discussion Flanked By Fired-Up Supporters, Opponents
This is the second of our two-part coverage of the May 16 Board of Education meeting involving book challenges.
UPDATE: This report was updated at 9:30 am on May 27 to correct the name of a meeting participant in the story and photo cutline.
UPDATE: This report was updated at 12:56 pm on May 30 to revise the title of a participant.
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Three of the 48 public participants who went on the record at a May 16 Board of Education meeting supported removing the books Flamer and Blankets from the high school’s library shelves.
The meeting was held in the high school cafetorium as Chair Deborra Zukowski anticipated public attendance in excess of the capacity of the Municipal Center’s Council Chambers.
While it was originally hoped to be the final meeting during which resolution would come regarding whether to keep or remove the books in question from circulation, Part 1 of the report in The Newtown Bee made note that just six members of the school board attended.
Board member Don Ramsey was unable to attend. It has since been learned he was attending to his wife, who was very ill. She has since passed away.
As previously reported, all but one of the related motions or amendments offered during the May 16 session tied 3-3 along party lines.
As the board opened the floor to public comments, Steve Landau came to the microphone explaining to the attending board members that he had read the books, which he said “have a lot of helpful and valid points.”
But Landau said if he wanted his daughter to know about various sexual acts graphically described in the books under consideration, “I think I should be the one to teach about those things in my own home. That is not the school’s place.”
Landau added that a lot of people think those who speak out against the books are being non-inclusive, but he has empathy and appreciation for diversity.
“I think some of these things in these books are obscene and of a disgusting and pornographic-style nature that should not be available to minor children,” he concluded.
Derek and Dee Pisani also approached the board with a joint statement. Derek spoke for both of them, and agreed the challengers weren’t being anti-LGBTQ. He said opinions, including those of the special review committee, were not “based on substantiated knowledge.”
He said sexually explicit material is not protected under the First Amendment when it comes to minors, and that it is debatable if the Miller Test (a test unpacked later by Board Member Dan Cruson) is relevant, as it is “used to determine obscenity, not sexually explicit material.”
Pisani referenced the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Psychology Today, and ‘Psychology Science’ for his statement: “Minors exposed to sexually explicit materials lead to sexually permissible attitudes and callousness, and they’re more likely to engage in casual, high-risk sex.”
He continued, referencing studies without citation. Pisani said it was an embarrassment no one was bringing forth “critical facts” in their opinions, and talked about educators and the board as having a “political agenda.”
“If the themes of these books are important to the students, then find wholesome books that address the same themes, just without the sexually explicit nature,” said Pisani, who added that leaving books in the library but restricting access “accomplishes nothing.”
About one out of every four participants who spoke identified themselves as a student, and each advocated against the prohibition of the books.
“If you think you can protect kids from dirty words, you haven’t been on a school bus in a while,” said Kenneth Miller, a sixth grader.
Skylar Lewis, who is 18, said if she is old enough to join the Army, she should be old enough to read the books. Regarding the books’ content, Skylar said it is a part of life; teens are aware of sex and many have sex.
Catherine Lye, another NHS student, said these books need to be read, even though they contain “challenging topics.” She said students in certain situations need to know others have made it out, and added that many students feel less safe because of proposed measures and asked the board to show queer students they care.
NHS student Joseph Crosby called into question how well board members know the student body.
The board’s lack of knowledge of affairs of the high school and middle school, particularly the use of the libraries, was the focus of comments from multiple students during the second public participation after board discussion and failed votes.
“You will not find students looking through books,” said Crosby, who said students are all on their phones in the library. “I’ve literally never seen someone look at books.”
Regarding explicit content thought by Zukowski to be filtered by Wi-Fi, NHS student Elle Glausman said, “I turn off my Wi-Fi, I can access these in three seconds, and I can show you right now.”
Several students mentioned accessing explicit materials was not something people do in school, or would search for in school libraries.
Most community members in favor of the books called for the board to listen to the special review committee.
“It is irresponsible to say ‘we have heard your expert opinion, but my neighbor told me otherwise,” said Nerlande Foote, later adding “there is a focused, sustained minority committed to book-banning that challenges the legitimacy of the board.”
Following Foote, six individuals filled their two minutes participation slot listing the specific education, experience, and awards of each person on the special review committee, advocating for the validity of their unanimous recommendation.
Each of these testimonies led to a statement about the committee member in focus, who “has the training and expertise in a way this board of education does not,” and “A vote against the special review committee is a vote against the experts; it’s a vote against educators.”
“Your job is to affirm the decision that [the committee experts] have made absent any showing of abuse or incorrect behavior, and you have done none of that,” Nicole Maddox said.
Former school board chairman Keith Alexander provided a similar statement in his public participation. “Unless you see a problem with the process, the right thing to do is move it along,” he said.
Included in Maddox’s speech were references to potential legal actions the board could face.
She said she could speak to the dangers of violating the First Amendment by removing books, forcing students to get special permission before checking them out, or disregarding the 14th Amendment, which she said includes “throwing out a vote” at the night’s meeting.
Legality concerns were also voiced by other participants during the public comment session.
“The banning of books can be viewed as a violation of Title IX,” said Mary Murphy, and referenced federal funding the district receives which could be at risk.
“To take this action will cost this town millions of dollars,” Dan Grossman said. He also mentioned concerns about educators and administrators resigning as seen “time and time again” when book banning is enacted.
Michelle Embree Ku, another former school board chair, read a letter from Mike Curato, the author and illustrator of Flamer, which appeared in last week’s edition of The Bee. In his note, he directly addressed the students of NHS.
“Don’t let anyone silence you, let it out,” he wrote, and listed creative methods students could use to express themselves. “Censorship is fought with expression. That is your First Amendment right no matter your age, or your station.”
Curato implored students to “lead with facts and compassion” while looking for opportunities to help those in their community who are marginalized.
“Flamer is my truth and my joy,” Curato wrote, as related by Ku. “It may make some people uncomfortable, but their comfort is nothing compared to your safety and happiness. Remember, they can ban my book, but no one has the right to ban you.”
Bruce Degen, illustrator of The Magic School Bus series, was in attendance and approached the board to provide his own statement.
Degen said he once met a teenage girl who was homeschooled, and wasn’t allowed to read his books, citing “demonism” involved in the magical transformation of the bus. He said she and her family are entitled to their belief system.
“[But] if that belief system would be the belief system that would rule this school, what would it mean?” queried Degen.
“We should not go back to a point in time where queer kids are pushed to the shadows and shamed continually,” said Timothy Stan.
Stan, who identified himself as bisexual, said he personally connected to the character in Flamer. He suggested the kid who looks for that book will have already heard the words of the bully character from Newtown’s own bullies.
Susan Chenko said her younger brother committed suicide when he was 21, and the day she spoke was his 52nd birthday. She said her brother was ashamed, depressed, and didn’t see a future for himself.
Chenko asked the board not to ban the books because they could help save a life in the community.
“We heard a board member say that she believed the book Flamer would indeed save lives, but she felt that the positive impact would have to be weighed against community standards,” said Matt Bracksieck. “I would hope that saving lives would be at the top of the list of community standards.”
Chris Gilson said his 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son went through some of the experiences the author of Blankets went through, and appeared full of emotion. Gilson said the book sparked a discussion about the book and their own experiences among the three of them.
Gilson said that banning books would be “saying that my kids and our life experiences should be banned because they are not appropriate for our public here in Newtown.”
A Bigger Picture
Many participants spoke about broader implications or intentions of book challenging efforts.
Wesley Johnson, the former Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coordinator of the Newtown School District who resigned in 2022, said he experienced the “open and forthright resistance of the board to certain policies, ideas, content, and themes.”
“The effort to ban books by this board is not only insensitive and myopic in my estimation, but it encumbers the beauty of a growing diverse community,” said Johnson.
He delved into a personal story where an article he wrote as editor in his college newspaper about Black contributors to the United States faced attempts of censorship by school officials. After it was published, Johnson said he was sent hateful mail and his door was vandalized with racist and hateful language.
“When we censor books, we minimize the value and the dignity of people’s lived experience,” said Johnson, who added the board should “assess [their] motives.”
Ben Kugielsky said the current narrative (around the book challenges) is “a tool to further a fascist, Christian-nationalist agenda threatening our freedom and safety” — and “to give a reasoned response to a disingenuous claim is to give merit to that claim and ultimately enable” the “nefarious” goals of the challengers.
He referenced dismantling of Holocaust education and denial of institutionalized racism in Florida school districts, as well as the so-called January 6 events at the Capitol.
“Removing these books and these materials about gay and historically marginalized people is not just about banning books, it is about cultural suppression, denial, and erasure,” said Leah Mayer.
After first suggesting it at a previous meeting, Danielle Lozer again approached the board with her recommendation of compromise — an app allowing parents to research books, and provide schools with a list of material they don’t want their children to read.
“If this were implemented, we could avoid having to go through this grueling process again and again and again for every single book that a parent disagrees with,” said Lozer.
Sarah Beier, an administrative assistant at the Reed Intermediate School library, told the board members while she appreciates an idea about a list put forward, it is her job to make lists for the library.
Beier referenced liability in her position if she were to provide a student with a book by mistake, and said the administrative side of the idea hadn’t been discussed. She also feared there will be new books under question every week.
“Any motion for compromise where a parent would be in charge of what their children read while they’re at school completely diminishes a child’s right to their own education,” said Morgan Albano. Albano added that her father would not have signed off for her to read books on gay rights, which would have “hindered her a lot as a person.”
Murphy also spoke in the second session, and identified herself as a child psychologist in town. She said an “opt-in” procedure for the books in the library would endanger kids who could out themselves (as LGBTQ) if they say they want the book.
“This policy has been followed to the letter, and it’s your job not to come to a compromise, not to change the policy mid-way,” said Trent Harrison, a teacher at Newtown High School.
Coverage on this story will continue in The Newtown Bee following a special Board of Education meeting on Thursday, June 1 at 7 pm in the Newtown High School auditorium. The first part of this meeting coverage can be reviewed at newtownbee.com.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at email@example.com.