Controversial books will remain in the Spruce Mountain High School library
JAY – Principals of Regional School Unit 73 heard both sides of an argument Thursday over whether to keep two controversial books on racism, sexuality and gender identity in the high school library Spruce Mountain to Jay before voting to keep them on the shelves.
The board’s decisions followed appeals filed by residents after a review committee recommended trustees allow ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir’ and ‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White’ to continue. People to Talk About Racism”.
On Thursday, the trustees voted 8-4 to allow “Gender Queer” to stay.
Chantelle Woodcock and Elaine Fitzgerald, both of Jay; Andrew Sylvester and Tasha Perkins, both of Livermore; and Phoebe Pike, D. Robin Beck, Lenia Coates and Student Representative Ava Coates, all of Livermore Falls.
Chairman Robert Staples and Jodi Cordes, both Jay, objected; Holly Morris of Livermore; and Patrick Milligan of Livermore Falls. Jay’s director Joel Pike was absent.
The vote on “white fragility” was 11-1. Morris objected.
The 2019 publication, “Gender Queer: A Memoir”, written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, chronicles Kobabe’s journey from adolescence to adulthood and the author’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality, according to multiple online sources.
“White Fragility” is an international bestseller written by Robin DeAngelo published in 2018. According to Amazon, she coined the term “white frailty” in 2011 to describe “the way ordinary white people react when pointed out to them that they have done or said something that – unintentionally – caused racial offense or hurt.
Opposition to books has been going on for the last months. In September, Superintendent Scott Albert informed the trustees that formal complaints had been filed, urging him to follow district policy and appoint a five-member committee to review the books. The calls were heard on Thursday.
John Benedetto, a parent from Livermore Falls, referenced the definitions found in the state law on dissemination of obscene language to minors and holds up pictures of the books. “They include things in Maine law that are considered illegal in the state of Maine,” he said.
Jeff Bailey, a parent of a high school student and teacher from a nearby district, urged administrators not to ban the books.
“Our schools are places of learning, growth and belonging,” he said. “At least that’s what we have the ability to continue to be. The books in question are not assigned to students, but are simply made available to them in our library.
“I imagine many books in the library would make someone feel uncomfortable and challenge our thoughts and beliefs,” he said. “Being able to seek out knowledge and learn to process information and perspectives other than our own is an important skill. It is, in fact, an important part of producing well-educated and independent graduates in our ever-changing and global world. It is a professional skill and a necessity.
“Banning these books would send a clear message – that our schools are NOT for everyone,” Bailey said. “We are for all students of all races and identities. Let’s not ban someone’s story, someone’s experiences, people’s stories. Let us be an institution of learning, compassion and understanding.
“I was a teacher for 29 years,” said Pam McAllister of Jay. Her students might have found something objectionable in any of the many books available, she noted. “No one is asking you to read this book.”
August Sender, training coordinator for OUT Maine, said the 2021 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey found that the percentage of Maine teens who identify as LGBTQ+ has continued to rise. “About 27% of Maine teens identified their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual and 6.5% identified as transgender or questioning,” he said.
“Why don’t we talk about the fact that less than 22% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and only 10.3% of transgender students in Maine report feeling safe at school? He asked. “These young people are experiencing unimaginable levels of harassment, bullying and assault on school grounds.”
Livermore’s Kristy Labonte spoke about the valuable insights books provide. “They taught me that the way I grew up isn’t how everyone else grew up,” she said. “They taught me that mental illness, trauma, geography, values all shape who people are and who they become.”
Labonte said three of his six family members are from the LGBTQ+ community and two of his four children are students of color at school. “The increase in racial rhetoric around the school, the graffiti on the walls and parents shouting racial slurs at a youth football game made it clear there is danger here,” said she declared.
“I’m a white mom trying to raise brown sons when I don’t have the experience I need to fully understand their position,” Labonte pointed out. She urged the council not to remove the books so that those who need them have access to them.
Doctor Steve Bien de Jay said “Gender Queer” is not pornography. If so, every health and science book would also have to be labeled as such. “If we start banning books based on parental concerns, where will it stop?” He asked. “Banning this book would only be the start.”
Ava Coates, the student representative on the school board, said most students at the school haven’t read “White Fragility,” which has been in the library for more than four years.
Jay’s Leslie Geissinger, who has two sons in high school, said, “I see a lot of kids in the ER who are suicidal. If bookkeeping is a step we can take, it’s up to us to take that step to protect these children.
Director Beck said in 2003 that she and his wife, Patty, were in Indiana and formed a youth group with 52 children, at least half of whom were deported because their parents did not consider them LGBTQ+ . “What we offered these kids was a chance to talk, to ask questions,” she said.
Shari Ouellette said those appealing the decision to keep “Gender Queer” in the library view the photos as pornography. Parents can choose not to let their children read the book, but what’s stopping someone from showing it to other students in a hallway or on the bus, she asked.
She urged the council to follow the science. “You’re either xx or xy (chromosome), that can’t be changed,” she said.
“As I read this book, it touched my heart knowing that we have students struggling with their identity,” said Superintendent Albert, who supports the committee’s recommendation. “If having this book can help them, then I am for it. Individual parents have the right not to allow their child to release this book. If I’m not given that option, I might feel differently.
He said that before complaints were received about the books, “Gender Queer” had been checked three times and “White Fragility” never.
On Thursday, the two books were checked out.