Auburn school district to review library book after formal complaints received | Education
AUBURN — Amid an escalating debate on banning literature both locally and nationally, an Auburn school district committee will review a nonfiction young adult book in the high school’s library because multiple written challenges have been submitted.
The Auburn Enlarged City School District has received formal complaints on the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto,” by journalist and activist George M. Johnson. Such complaints are required under the district policy in order to start an official review process.
Concerns about the book from some parents first surfaced at a school board meeting in December. After more community members became aware of the situation, several residents spoke in support of having the book available at last week’s board meeting.
The book chronicles Johnson growing up as a queer Black person. Some passages include material the book’s detractors have argued are too sexually explicit for students, and schools in some states have banned it. Detractors have compared it to child pornography and said it shouldn’t be openly available to young people at a high school library.
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But library and intellectual freedom advocates have said taking the work off library shelves would be censorship and that the book and its overall context, including the select passages, reflect real-world experiences of adolescents, particularly those within the LGBTQ community.
Auburn school board members first heard a complaint about “All Boys Aren’t Blue” at a meeting on Dec. 14 before more people voiced concerns at a Jan. 11 meeting. Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said earlier this month that the district is not able to simply remove a book some find objectionable and needs to adhere to policies based off of state law. At that time, he hadn’t received a written challenge on the book.
Since then, however, the district has received multiple written challenges to the book, triggering a process in which a committee must review the book and give a recommendation to the school board, which will decide whether the book can remain at the high school or not.
The review committee
The district’s “Objection to Instructional Materials” policy states criticism of the schools’ instructional materials should be brought forth to the superintendent in writing. The policy, last updated in January 2004, adds that the superintendent will then designate a committee, including the librarian and building principal, to investigate and judge the material being challenged according to the qualitative standards and principles of the district’s “Selection of Library and Audiovisual Materials” policy.
Pirozzolo said the committee, expected to have nine members, is being formed. The group is set to be led by Amy Mahunik, Auburn’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and Brian Morgan, the AHS principal. It is expected to include administrators, teachers, at least one parent and at least one student. Pirozzolo said he will not be on the committee. High school librarian Beth Cuddy will also be on the committee, a requirement of the policy.
Pirozzolo said the district wants to have English teachers “because English is part of literature and reading” representing teachers on the committee. Matteo Bartolotta, the school board member who is designated liaison between the board and the school, will also be asked, if his schedule allows him. The district is also expected to reach out to Kiearalyn Mathis, the school board’s student representative for the 2021-22 school year. If Mathis is not able to participate or declines, Pirozzolo said, Morgan would probably choose another student.
Pirozzolo said one of the parents who filed a challenge on the book would be asked, as well. “I think it’s important that the committee understands the perspective of why the complaint was put in,” he said.
A timeline for a resolution regarding this issue has not been established, Pirozzolo added, saying that the district still has to order copies of the book so committee members can read it and that members will need time to read it.
Once the committee is formed, Pirozzolo said, the group will meet to discuss the policy and have a conversation. Members will then read the book. After reading the book, the group will come together again to make sure the board policy is being followed and then have a conversation on whether the book should remain at the library or not.
The committee’s recommendation is not meant to be made based on the personal opinion of individual committee members, Pirozzolo added, but by adhering to the established policy. That discussion is intended to be based on the district’s “Discussion of Library and Audiovisual Materials” policy.
The committee will send a recommendation to the school board, which will make the final decision on whether the book will stay or be removed from the library. Pirozzolo said state education law requires school board have final say on whether or not a challenged book should be in a school library.
While Pirozzolo had previously said that as of Jan. 12, no student had checked the book out of the library, AHS librarian Beth Cuddy said in an email to The Citizen Friday that the book is currently checked out by a student and there is a waiting list of nine more students for it.
At the Tuesday, Jan. 25, school board meeting, 10 people spoke during the public comment period, with nine supporting the inclusion of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” on the library shelves.
One of the supporters of the book was Steve Gamba, the high school’s choral and music director. After being an educator for 28 years, Gamba said he is “finally confident enough to stand here in front of the governing board of the district for which I work and identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community without fear of repercussion.”
Gamba said that is because he feels the district’s leadership has “fostered a safe and accepting and inclusive environment. A good portion of the beginning of my career was spent in fear of losing my job simply because of who I am.”
Saying that books “give voice to feelings and collective experiences,” he said parts of the book rang true to his experiences.
“To focus only on a few paragraphs and pages to characterize an entire book is both narrow-minded and wrong, while at the same time, invalidating the struggles of and further marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community here at Auburn High School,” he said. “I found this book to be appropriate, provocative and a catalyst for equality, inclusion, diversity and change, which aligns with the mission statement of the Auburn Enlarged City School District.”
Later, Barb Stotler, who had expressed concerns about the book at previous board meetings, took to the podium. She said she purchased the book and read it cover-to-cover.
“It’s a good book. It’s something that a lot of kids could use and I support that. What I’m objecting to is the six-to-eight pages of straight porn in the center of the book,” she said.
Describing herself as a “huge proponent of the First Amendment” and saying she has been censored a lot on social media due to her conservative views, Stotler said critics of those raising objections to “All Boys Aren’t Blue” have mischaracterized the situation.
“This is not about censorship,” she said. “I want to make something very clear: To those of us that are objecting to this book, it’s not about race or sexual preference. It’s about a book with pornography. There are laws both state and federal pertaining to obscenity and minors.”
Cuddy, the high school librarian, also spoke during public comments. She said libraries are meant to provide resources to serve all populations, including young adults from different backgrounds and experiences.
“The foundation of a pluralistic society like ours in the United States is the ability to see one another as human regardless of the differences. What a society teaches its young people says something about what a society values.” she said. “By having this book, ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue,’ and others reflecting the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, we are saying to those students that you matter, your story matters, and it deserves a place on our shelves.”
Cuddy noted the book has been widely reviewed, which is something librarians look for while making book purchase lists, and added that the book has received different accolades and acknowledgments.
“Having it on our shelves does not take away parents’ rights to have a say in the media their children consume,” she said. “What can’t happen is one parent or a group of parents taking that decision away from all parents or from teens, who don’t shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, as has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.