Middle/High school library books under scrutiny after one is removed

The name of the book alone is provocative. But it’s what Jaimi Pinola read inside “This Book Is Gay” that shocked her.

“It was very explicit,” she said.

Abington school officials have removed the book from the Middle/High School library while they conduct a formal review. But Pinola is currently looking deeper into the school’s collection, inspired by stories of inappropriate, explicit, or divisive material uncovered in school libraries across the country.

“I’m not looking to clean out the library,” she said. “But some of what is that book that was pulled was wildly inappropriate.”

Superintendent Peter Schafer, at Wednesday’s school committee meeting, said while he felt a “majority ” of the book was appropriate, there were other sections that were “not appropriate for this library and that book isn’t here anymore.” However, Schafer, multiple members of the school committee, and other Abington parents, have signaled a willingness to defend other titles they believe have literary, educational, and social value.

“We agreed on that book, but I bet you there’s going to be other books we’re not going to see eye-to-eye on with different members of the community,” Schafer told Pinola during the meeting.

“I think there should be a very high standard when it comes to removing any material from our schools,” School Committee Chairman Chris Coyle told Abington News afterwards.

Pinola, a mother of six, said she had heard about “sexually explicit books” found by parents in school libaries in other parts of the country and was curious what was in the Middle/High School Library. She made notes of book titles found in other libraries, and was told by one of her children that “This Book Is Gay” had been on display in the school library last year.

“This Book Is Gay” is described as an irreverant but frank explanation of coming out, dating, sexual orientation, and gender identity for teenagers 14 and older. Schafer said school librarians use trusted reference lists when choosing titles to purchase, and that “This Book Is Gay” was “highly recommeded.”

Pinola said she talked to middle school Principal Matt MacCurtin the next day, looked through a copy of the book. and found that it contained, among other things, graphic sex tips, and hints on how to use dating apps.

“To have something like that at school was shocking to me. It was shocking to the principal, too,” she said, adding that her objection wasn’t the LGBTQ themes, and she would have been as shocked if it was discussing straight sex and relationships.

Pinola said she is “grateful” about how Schafer and school administrators have responded to her concerns. She has since provided school officials with a list of 23 books that she feels may contain inappropriate content based on a review of the library’s collection and books flagged by parents elsewhere. Some of the books feature LBGTQ themes, including “All Boys Aren’t Blue”, and others include descriptions of sexual assault, incest, and other adult issues, such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”.

She acknowledges that she has not read the books and only saw excerpts of questionable content identified by others.

“I told Peter I was going to read these books in their entirety because some things could be taken out of context,” she said. “But even if the rest of the story is fine, I don’t want my children seeing [the explicit content].”

Abington Public Schools has a formal policy allowing any resident, parent, or guardian to challenge materials in school libraries. Once a challenge is received, the superintendent puts together a small review panel featuring a teacher in the related subject area, a member of the school committee, a member of the community, a library media specialist, and other school department administrators, directors and supervisors. The committee has 20 school days to make a recommendation. If the person making the challenge still isn’t satisified, they can appeal to the school committee.

Pinola said her goal isn’t to have every book with questionable or explicit content removed. She also acknowledges that other parents may have different opinions. Rather, she feels books with strong content should be labeled as such – perhaps similar to how music with explicit lyrics features a warning label. The library should also track who is checking out certain books to ensure it’s age appropriate.

“I wouldn’t want a child to come across one of these books who wasn’t ready for it,” Pinola said. “I would feel more comfortable if the books that has this stuff in it was clearly marked as explicit and the library noted which child had taken it out.”

The issue has sparked a quick response from other Abington parents and community members, however, concerned that efforts by conservative groups in other parts of the country to censor books perceived as explicit, divisive, or supportive of LGBTQ issues is now reaching Abington.

Within 24 hours of Wednesday’s school committee meeting, multiple posts on Abington-centric Facebook groups were circulating an online petition to “keep LGBTQ+ books in the Abington High School Library.” More than 1,000 people have signed the petitions so far.

Commenters erroneously insisted Thursday that administrators had closed the middle/ high school library and pulled all LGBTQ-related books from shelves for review. Schafer said that wasn’t true; that the library was closed Thursday afternoon for a staff meeting, and no other books are currently being reviewed or challenged.

Still, some parents and school committee members are ready to defend the value of the books flagged by others as inappropriate.

“Whether a book is ‘appropriate’ for a school library or not is subjective. Making decisions based on knee jerk reactions to certain passages of a book, without knowing the context is a dangerous precedent,” School Committee Member Julie St. Martin Groom said in an interview with Abington News.

“Many lists of ‘inappropriate’ books being circulated are books that depict characters who come from historically marginalized groups. Their stories can be difficult, and at times graphic, but are important as they help teach critical thinking skills, foster empathy and help reinforce an understanding of topics such as the importance of consent. These books help the reader engage with human experiences unlike their own.”

Heather Sage-Hartery, who has three daughters in Abington schools, started a Facebook group over the weekend for parents and community members interested in protecting a broad range of educational resources.

“We hear so much about parents’ rights, but what about students’ rights?,” she said. “All students deserve representation in school materials and access to information.”

Pinola said one of her goals is to simply make more parents aware of what their children might be reading, and if that sparks a larger discussion, that’s OK too.

“The more parents who read this stuff, the better,” she said. “I would love to hear other people’s opinions. If other people think its appropriate, I’d love to hear why.”

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