Explicit Book Concerns Dominate School Board Meeting; School Librarians Object To Idea Of ‘Older Teen’ Section

Explicit Book Concerns Dominate School Board Meeting; School Librarians Object To Idea Of ‘Older Teen’ Section
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NEWARK – Complaints about library books and subsequent discussion of potentially adding an “older teen” section to Worcester County Public Schools libraries is a cause for concern among some members of the community.

Following a contentious school board meeting last week, during which many people shared concerns with explicit library books and a Pocomoke High School senior emotionally asked the board to fight for students, the Maryland Association of School Librarians has issued an advocacy alert and a group of local residents has banded together to defend schools.

“I formed Worcester United after attending the November board of education meeting,” Berlin resident Tom Simon said this week. “There was an emotional, heartbreaking speech at the end by a student representative. I was so upset after leaving that meeting, I made a Facebook post about it the next day and then many of my friends spoke out about these issues facing our public schools. That’s when we formed Worcester United to start organizing to defend our schools, teachers and students.”

During the public comment portion of last week’s school board meeting, numerous citizens shared their thoughts. While some thanked the school system for the wonderful experiences their children were having in local schools, others expressed frustration that nothing was being done about the “sexually explicit” books in school libraries. Newark resident Pat Barbely said she’d attended several school board meetings to voice her concerns but nothing had been done to address them.

“I and many other parents have requested the board remove the sexually explicit books in our school libraries,” she said. “Books like ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ which is the story of a young male child who is taken advantage of by an older male family member. The child is then in an incestuous relationship with his cousin which propels him into numerous sexual encounters, all of which is graphically detailed in the book.”

She said the board’s explanation for retaining the books was so students in similar situations might be able to identify with what was in the book.

“I fail to see where reading these books offers hope help or resources or solutions to a troubled student in this situation,” Barbely said.

Another speaker said the Worcester County “Moms for Liberty” group wanted parents to have the choice to assess what their child was checking out from the school library.

“There are common sense policies we can implement together that recognize all these wonderful differences that make us the United States of America,” she said. “Moms for Liberty Worcester County is concerned for all children without prejudice.”

Berlin resident Scott Taylor said that while his kids were no longer in school he had concerns about the books now available to students. He said there were firewalls on school computers to keep kids from accessing inappropriate content and said something similar should be in place for books.

“Kids don’t always have the greatest judgment,” he said.

Simon, who has a four-year-old student at Buckingham, was in attendance at the meeting and told the board he was upset about the non-inclusive agendas being pushed by members of the public at school board meetings.

“The only people trying to indoctrinate our kids are the people spouting this hateful rhetoric,” he said. “School should be an inclusive safe space for all kids to grow and learn. I’m confident right now in Worcester County they are. I urge you to listen to the actual parents of students in the schools and residents of Worcester County not the vocal minority. Banning books when kids have full access to the internet in their pocket seems like a futile effort.”

Girdletree residents Lorraine and Dan Barrett said they were upset about the fact that sexually explicit books were even available in local middle schools.

“I believe giving porn to minors is a crime,” Dan Barrett said. “Think it through.”

Another speaker suggested restricting access to certain materials in the library.

Stephen Decatur High School teacher Mary Hathaway said she’d intended to speak about the need for a fully funded school system but that she felt compelled to respond to the references to indoctrination.

“I am a proud Worcester County Public Schools graduate, educator and now parent,” she said. “I believe what our teachers are doing is not indoctrination but it is education. It is teaching our whole student and those books that people are so upset about, let me tell you from a high school teacher’s perspective I am not indoctrinating but every day those books help our students.”

Ocean Pines resident Kate McCloskey said her children had already graduated from local schools but that she regularly attended school board meetings. She said the board should be focused on improving students’ academic performance.

“We’re putting increased priority on social justice, on gender identity discussions and by the way parents don’t send their kids to school for any of this,” she said. “We want to get back to the basics of a fundamental high-quality education. We’ve counted over 65 books in our libraries that have sexually explicit material. I’m talking hardcore sexually explicit material. Many of us are not wanting to stand for this.”

Another Ocean Pines resident brought up the issue of liability.

“My concern is if we keep these books in our schools you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit…,” Scott Wilkins said. “Let’s keep our schools clean and keep focused on what the last lady spoke about, our testing and our scores. What are our kids here for in the first place? Are they here to read porn or are they here to get their math and history and spelling, their English?”

Ocean Pines resident Grant Helvey said he had no problem with books but did not feel schools had the right to provide access to them to other people’s children for the purpose of indoctrination.

“Your neighbors from whom you draw authority no longer trust those of you who support certain books in our school libraries or who give tacit approval by your silence,” he said. “Neither does the community approve of your fascination with LGBTQ and the socialist ideologies hidden behind diversity, equity and inclusion. Mankind has evolved for 192,000 years without accommodation for the inner feelings of boys who wish they were girls or girls who wish they were boys.… I applaud the commissioners’ decision to fund the system at only maintenance of effort level. I hope they will cut the school budget every dollar that they legally can until certain books are removed and LGBTQ and DEI becomes as scorned as slavery was in the 18th century.”

Pocomoke High School student Treston Melvin, one of three board of education student representatives, suggested the board listen to students, as they knew what was best for them.

“I would like to say that I, as a student, am appalled by the things I have heard tonight,” Melvin said. “I am hurt, and I can say that every student over there is hurt too. If we as a community are focused on education, why aren’t we listening to the students who are hurting who are crying because of what you guys are saying. I am sick and tired of you talking about indoctrination just because people want to live freely. I am sick and I am tired and I can see why some of you wanted evening meetings because these people will be here, because you get the people who hate. I am a student and I am a human and I was sexually assaulted at 15 years old and ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue,’ that book, to see someone who was like me, that saved my life.”

Melvin asked the board to fight for students.

“Look at the students that are in front of you,” Melvin said. “You have to see that we’re in pain because the people we have to fight are the people that say they love us and are here for us. I want to encourage you as the board of education to please fight for us because what they want is not what is best for us.”

At the end of last Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Katie Addis brought up the fact that the school system’s policy only allowed a parent, guardian, employee or student to lodge a formal complaint about books in school libraries. She made a motion to broaden that to allow county residents to file complaints.

“With the current definition we are leaving out the largest group in our county who needs to have a voice and that’s the stakeholders of Worcester County,” Addis said.

She made a motion, which was seconded by school board member Jon Andes, to revise the policy to allow county residents to file complaints.

“I’d really like to think this one through,” board member Elena McComas said.

Addis said she brought up the issue in September but agreed to table the motion until the December meeting. Staff pointed out that would give educators the chance to provide a presentation on current book review procedures.

Andes suggested another alternative as well. He said books with a “cringe factor” could be put in an “older teen” collection.

“That older teen collection would be available only if the parent gave permission for the student to have access to the older teen collection…,” he said. “Parents would have the final choice.”

The board agreed to resume the discussion in December. Within days of Andes’ suggestion, however, the Maryland Association of School Librarians (MASL) issued an advocacy alert asking people to express their concerns to the school board. The group said Cecil County recently implemented a similar policy.

“MASL is committed to safeguarding the rights of students to access information, explore ideas, and engage with literature freely,” an advocacy alert from the MASL reads. “Currently, Cecil County requires students to have a signed permission slip to access the “Older Teen Collection.” Worcester County is also exploring this model. The practice of using permission slips and prejudicial labeling as a mechanism for controlling access to certain titles is based on value judgements amounts to censorship. MASL is concerned that using permission slips to access restricted titles will spread to other districts in Maryland.”

Meanwhile, Simon created Worcester United to address what he sees as multiple issues facing the school system. Simon said it was Melvin’s plea that led him to act. The group held its first meeting in Berlin this week and he believes it will likely focus on three issues—advocating for more than maintenance of effort level funding, seeking the necessary funding to build a new Buckingham Elementary School and “stopping the Moms for Liberty crowd from dictating what our kids can read.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.