The Mercury News Weekend

Emotions run high over book policies

Raucous debate over LGBTQ+ topics as school board members deal with audience outbursts

- By Rachel Heimann Mercader rmercader @bayareanew­

DANVILLE >> A controvers­ial debate over banning books from an East Bay school district's libraries reached a peak late Tuesday as dozens of residents packed a school board meeting, with some accusing district leaders of allowing literature with “pornograph­ic” material into the hands of young children.

One by one, public speakers stepped to the podium inside the San Ramon Valley Unified School District boardroom, turning a discussion about the district's book acquisitio­n and guidelines policy and how parents can challenge specific content into a debate over books dealing with LGBTQ+ topics.

Emotions ran high in a debate rarely seen in the progressiv­e Bay Area. More than once board members paused the meeting due to outbursts from audience members, some of whom brought signs reading, “Latest SRVUSD Scandal: Pornograph­ic Books in the District's High School Libraries.”

Still, others including students defended the texts as educationa­lly valuable and having literary merit. The books at issue are available in some school libraries but are not assigned in any classes.

“Those who are trying to ban books in our district are fighting a nonexisten­t problem,” Daniel Gross, a junior at Monte Vista High School, told the school board. “They're trying to put an end to something that's not happening in the first place. The books are for students who are interested in them and those students only.”

In recent years, there has been a growing movement among educators and librarians to promote the inclusion of diverse and inclusive literature in school libraries, with supporters arguing that exposure to diverse books can help promote empathy, understand­ing and foster a more inclusive environmen­t among students.

But as seen increasing­ly across the nation, some parents of students in the Danville-based district over the past month have expressed a desire to ban some LGBTQ-themed books from the district's libraries, deeming the books age inappropri­ate and at times pornograph­ic, an accusation the district denies.

Interest in book banning began in early January when a video circulated online with unfounded claims that a San Ramon Valley High School teacher discipline­d a student with a “zero” grade after the student refused to read “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” The alleged incident could not be verified by the school, and no complaint had been filed with the district, officials said. District officials previously told this news organizati­on that San Ramon Valley High School's one copy of “Gender Queer” has been in the campus library since October 2020 and only checked out twice.

Calls to remove books with sexual orientatio­n, gender identity, race and racism themes have been a source of conflict around the country and in the San Ramon district for some time, particular­ly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many parents and local groups became more active and vocal during school board meetings and in Facebook groups.

In November, the student newspaper at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon reported that a parent unsuccessf­ully attempted to have Rainbow Powell's “Carry On” removed from the campus library. Other books, including “Melissa's Story” by Alex Gino and “57 Bus” by Dashka Slate, both of which included LGBTQ+ characters, were challenged by Charlotte Wood Middle School parents.

But the unfounded claim that a student was punished for refusing to read Maia Kobabe's “Gender Queer” reached the school board level at a January meeting, with the board deciding it should discuss the district's policy on challenged books at its Feb. 21 gathering.

Several of the more than 30 speakers at Tuesday's meeting, many of them parents who presently do not have students in the district, raised similar concerns.

“What was once a plea for tolerance has become a demand for LGBTQ porn, allegedly because LGBTQ students need to see themselves in library books, including depraved, explicitly illustrate­d how-to sex manuals like the books `This Book is Gay,' and `Let's Talk About It,' ” Mike Arata said during public comment, adding that teachers who supply these books to children should be arrested under “obscenity laws.”

Tracy Davis, who has two daughters in the district, disagreed.

“I believe that books are important tools in helping children understand themselves and their place in the world,” she said. “If my daughters read about the LGBTQ community, I do not fear them being indoctrina­ted but rather take comfort knowing that they are learning acceptance and empathy for others who may not look like or feel the same as they do.”

Debra Petish, the district's director of curriculum and instructio­n, told the packed board room that “no student is forced to read a book that makes them uncomforta­ble.”

After public comment, school board trustee Laura Bratt commented that she felt many public speakers “spoke about the LGBTQ community in a very marginaliz­ed way.” She added that as a parent of a transgende­r student and someone who has read “Gender Queer,” she “saw the journey that my child went through, and it meant a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to the students and the families that are experienci­ng these types of things.”

Trustee Shelley Clark said that “banning books is a dangerous business.”

“When we choose books for students in this district, we're not choosing just for your child,” Clark said. “We're choosing for all children, especially those who are underrepre­sented.”

Trustee Jesse VanZee, who has come under scrutiny from some parents and students for making comments during his November campaign about wanting to remove certain books from libraries, pushed back, explaining that he still wants to find a way to resect “parent rights.” VanZee also alluded to a “gray area” in the current policy that allows books to get into the hands of students in the classroom as part of the curriculum.

With the exception of VanZee, the board ended the discussion, which ran late into the evening, with a consensus that there was not enough evidence to warrant any change in the district's book policies.

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