Lots of opinions but no vote – yet – on controversial book

The Abington School Committee heard passionate, angry, and sometimes graphic testimony from parents about a sexually frank book in the Middle/High School library and then teed up a possible future vote on whether to keep or remove it. 

However, it is not clear if and when the board will actually take that vote. State law says school committees may vote to “change” the books used in classrooms once notice is given at a public meeting. However, Abington also has a previously approved policy that spells out how members of the public can challenge books with content they find objectionable.

School Committee Chairman Chris Coyle gave notice Tuesday night that another board member had invoked the law and requested the change. But he said he won’t place a formal vote on the agenda if the book is formally challenged under the district policy. 

“However, as of today, there have been no formal complaints about any book,” he said at the start of the meeting, which was moved from the library to the building’s auditorium due to the large crowd in attendance. 

In September, a parent informally questioned the presence of “This Book Is Gay” in the shared Middle/High School Library. The book is described as an irreverant but frank explanation of coming out, dating, sexual orientation, and gender identity for teenagers 14 and older. It is traditionally kept in the section of the library reserved for high schoolers. However, during Pride Month last June it was included in a display along with other LGBTQ  books.  

The book has come under fire in other school districts around the country by parents who feel it is pornographic and inappropriate for a school library. Some Abington community members told the School Committee that they agree. 

Christine Simmons held up a printout of a section of the book featuring a naked cartoon man that she said demonstrates the book is not appropriate, particularly considering the district’s technology policy prohibits students from accessing similar content on their school-issued laptops. 

“I find it hard to believe that there are no other books out there that teaches the same things without the graphic material,” she said. 

Patricia Balder said the fact the book was prominently displayed along with other LGBTQ books was “a definite sign of indoctrination and endorsement by the schools.”

“Children become victims of the cultural environment that is highly suggested to them,” she continued. “I prefer an environment that is healthy and safe instead of installing ideologies not consistent with family values.”  

Selectman Alex Hagerty gave the most passionate speech of the night. Hagerty, who is openly gay, and a 2013 Abington High graduate, said he remembers the “bullying, heckling, and stereotyping” that out students endured in the school’s hallways and supports the high school’s current Gender and Sexuality Alliance club. However, he  fiercely opposed the book, saying it feeds outdated tropes about homosexuality.   

“Books like “This Book Is Gay” that promote explicit sexual language, graphic imagery, and dangerous scenarios does not represent the majority of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people,” he said to loud cheers from those in favor of removing the book.

“The people who equate my community to these books and say they should be for children are reattaching those erroneous stereotypes, charicactures, and stigmas that the gay rights movement fought to get away from.”

Hagerty told those in attendance that, when younger, he had been sexually assaulted by a man he met while using a dating app, and was horrified that the book promoted the use of dating apps. 

Others told the School Committee they feel the book is not pornographic, but has value in helping older students – nobody advocated making the book available for middle schools students – who are trying to better understand their sexual identity. 

Superintendent Peter Schafer said while he originally had reservations, he had read the book since the last meeting and felt it was appropriate for older students; that although it was graphic at times “those chapters are really warnings to the reader about safe sex and behavior.” 

Sue Wakelin said the content is no more graphic than what is found in a Harlequin romance novel, and that parents should be more focused on supporting LGBTQ teens. 

“You should not take things away that’s helping them,” she said. “When I was in school kids were committing suicide if they were gay because they had no place to go.” 

Tom Burke said he’s volunteered with suicide prevention programs for more than 40 years and LGBTQ teens are four times more likely to try and kill themselves because they feel isolated and unsupported. He said Abington has done a good job building a support system for this population and removing the book to “protect” students could have unintended consequences.

“I could not recommend that this book be removed from the library. It would certainly send a message to people in that group that the strong support system currently in place is deteriorating,” he said. 

Rachel Abell said the School Committee should also respect the rights of parents who feel the book is appropriate and should be part of the library collection. 

“Why do the rights of the parents who would like this book removed matter more than the rights of the parents who would like to have our children have access to these books?” she said. 

The discussion was often heated and emotional, with supporters from both sides cheering and applauding speakers they agree with. 

A man from Quincy who said he has six grandchildren in the school district yelled that he would sue Coyle after Coyle denied him the right to speak, saying they were taking testimony from Abington residents only. The committee took a 15 minutes recess in the middle of the discussion to let emotions cool down. 

More than 100 Abington teachers, tutors, and paraprofessionals were in attendance at the meeting to protest the lack of a contract for the district’s paraprofessionals. Efforts to negotiate a new contract, which expired in August, have progressed slower than preferred by the Abington Education Association. 

Union President Steve Shannon addressed the School Committee at the start of the meeting, saying that the duties and responsibilities of classroom paraprofessionals have drastically changed in recent years and that the position’s wage structure has not kept up.

Members of the Abington Education Association in attendance at last night’s school committee meeting
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