‘Feels like a slippery slope’: York mulls pulling sex ed book from Middle School library

Jan 25, 2022

YORK, Maine — The York School Committee heard an appeal Wednesday, Jan. 19, from a local grandmother who asked to have a book about sexual health removed from the York Middle School library.

Now the committee is weighing whether to grant the appeal or affirm the superintendent’s decision to leave the book on the YMS shelf.

During the meeting, committee members asked several questions of Patsy Huntsman, 72, about her appeal, and they heard from YMS Principal Barbara Maling, Ph.D., who summarized the reasons why a review committee recommended that Huntsman’s request be denied. 

Huntsman said she has read the book – “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by author Robie Harris and illustrator Michael Emberley – and believes some of the information may be useful to parents.

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“There’s some very good information here in the hands of a parent,” she told the committee. “I don’t agree with it all. It’s not what I want to teach my child. My morals and my ethics are different than what this book teaches – and I think that there are many parents that feel the same way.”

Committee Chair Dave Herbein said the committee will discuss, vote and render a final decision at the next regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 2

Debating book’s appropriateness

Huntsman, who submitted her original removal request in November, said the book “It’s Perfectly Normal” contains graphic language and imagery that she believes should not be readily available to children younger than 12 without a parent’s consent. 

“We have conservative people, we have very liberal people, we have everything in between,” she said. “And this book really does not fit in many people’s beliefs.”

Maling said parents can ask school librarians not to give their children access to certain books, and the YMS librarians are qualified and highly trained to make selections for the library and help students pick out individual books.

“We only have two staff who check out books in the library … they are knowledgeable about both the library collection and the students, they work with the students directly through library classes … they get to know the students fairly well and they match students to books,” Maling said. 

Maling said the review committee found “It’s Perfectly Normal” was appropriate for ages 10 and up, which makes it appropriate for the middle school library. 

“We looked at the quality of the book, and it has a number of awards … it’s considered factually accurate and straightforward,” she said. 

During the meeting, school committee member Dawn Belliveau asked Huntsman at what age this book would be appropriate.  

“I know you said you feel like this book would be appropriate for high school students. I guess I’m wondering, what if somebody comes and challenges that it shouldn’t be in the high school?” Belliveau said. “My concern is it feels a bit like a slippery slope if we’re not turning to the expertise of our librarians.”

Huntsman said older students at York High School may be better prepared to handle a book like this one.

“I’m not saying I would like to see it there,” she said. “There’s a vast difference between a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old … they’ve been exposed to a whole lot more in life.”

Request sparked blowback

Huntsman’s request sparked widespread debate among community members online, and a score of local librarians have shown up to a number of meetings to defend the book, including at the appeal.

Harris, the author, said in November that her book has been a source of controversy since its original publication in 1994, and that she fields calls almost every week from various media outlets, libraries and schools. In recent years, the book has come under even more scrutiny, which Harris attributes to increasingly organized efforts from conservative groups.

The book has been controversial in other communities in recent years, landing on the American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Most Challenged Books four times in the past two decades.

Huntsman said she’s involved with a few conservative groups, including three local groups that meet regularly to discuss the York school system, hash out concerns and make plans to address them. She didn’t name the groups.

Huntsman said she and others plan to protest several initiatives in York schools.

“It’s certainly not just this book,” Huntsman said in an interview late last year.

ACLU of Maine chimes in

The plans to review Huntsman’s appeal prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine to take a stance, with a letter Jan. 18 to York School Superintendent Lou Goscinski.

ACLU of Maine Policy Director Meagan Sway urged the school committee to refuse Huntsman’s request, along with any future book removal requests.

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“A school board does not have the discretion to remove books from the library because it does not agree with their content,” Sway wrote. “Removing books from the school library harms students and the educational environment. It deprives students of access to ideas, it deprives them of an educational setting that promotes democratic participation, and it limits their ability to grow into informed citizens.”

York Middle School student Evelyn Adelson, 10, and her parent, Shea Adelson, who serves as vice president of the York Public Library Board of Trustees, shared their views on the possible removal of a book from the YMS library during a York School Committee meeting Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2021 in York, Maine.

Goscinski said he stands by the school committee policy establishing the book removal request process, and said it will likely not change in response to the letter from ACLU of Maine

More parents speak out

During the appeal, Huntsman said she doesn’t believe her effort to remove the book from YMS is the same as banning a book because librarians decide which books are and are not age appropriate for schools all the time, and the book is available at the York Public Library.

During public comment, two other parents raised related concerns about how the schools vet and acquire library books and other materials. 

“Some parents want explicit activities to be taught at school, and some do not,” said  Radka Meader, a former School Committee candidate. “Based on the result of the meeting from a couple of weeks ago, I assume the book in question will stay in the middle school library.”

Julie Edminster, who currently has two children at YHS, said other books in the library should be examined for inappropriate and explicit content, citing the book “Gender Queer” by author Maia Kobabe as an example. 

“I’m not going to fill out a form and request the book to be removed. I don’t have time,” Edminster said, criticizing the graphic novel for its sexual images. “Teach some morals and some ethics … I’m sick of it.”

“We get labeled as book banners and crazy parents if you think that a book should be removed from the library,” Edminster added. “What message are we sending to the kids by allowing these kinds of books in the library? Are there standards to determine whether the book is considered child pornography, or just general health and science?”

SOURCE : https://www.seacoastonline.com/story/news/local/2022/01/25/york-me-mulls-removing-sex-ed-book-its-perfectly-normal-from-middle-school-library/6610971001/

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