An overflow crowd filled a small Town Hall meeting room yesterday afternoon.
They were there for a public session of superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice’s ad hoc committee to review a parent’s challenge to 3 books in the Staples High library.
Tara McLaughlin — the mother of 2 Staples students and a kindergartener — sought the removal of “Gender Queer,” “This Book is Gay” and “Flamer.” Her initial complaint included other books, but she is focusing now on those 3.
McLaughlin — a 15-year Westport resident who moved here in large part, she said, because of the town’s excellent schools — had an hour to present her case before the special committee. It includes assistant superintendent Dr. Anthony Buono; representatives of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions; 3 Staples faculty members; a library media specialist, and 3 community members. The meeting was led by former Board of Education chair Elaine Whitney.
Referencing her own middle and high school days, when she sat in homeroom behind 2 boys who repeatedly passed explicit material back and forth, McLaughlin said her goal was to prevent other students from undergoing a similar experience.
She said, “I can control what my children see. I’m their guide, to launch them into society to the best of my ability. My job is to protect them. I expect the school system to do the same, to the same standards. I’m here for every child.”
McLaughlin — who said “It sucks to be here, but I really believe in this” — spent much of her time reading from the 3 books. She cited “vulgarity” and “pornography”; questioned the books’ educational value, and asked how the books fit with the school district’s “acceptable use” policy for written materials and electronic devices.
“I 100 percent support the LGBTQ+ community,” McLaughlin said. “But there are a lot of conservative Christians, conservative Jewish people and Muslims here (in Westport) who have expectations for what kids will see in the Staples library.”
McLaughlin noted that she did not object to the books being part of the Westport Library collection.
Calling one of the books “a road map to meet a pedophile,” she said that it “perpetuates stereotypes of all gay men as promiscuous.”
Each member of the committee had copies of the 3 books. They followed along, as McLaughlin read aloud a number of “vulgar” and “pornographic” passages.
Staples principal Stafford Thomas then described the school’s book selection process. He noted regional differences: In Florida and Texas, 1,400 titles are banned from school libraries. In California and New York, the numbers are 12 and 22 respectively. No books have been banned from school libraries in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Referencing a Supreme Court decision, Thomas said, “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”
He added that the display that triggered McLaughlin’s complaint was a 17-year tradition at Staples. No one in the building, he said, objected to this year’s books.
(“Banned books” is a misnomer. The display actually shows the previous year’s “most challenged” books, as compiled by the American Library Association.)
Staples library media specialists Jen Cirino and Nicole Moeller provided background on how books are selected for inclusion on the shelves, and in the display.
All 3 earned very positive reviews in educational and library journals, they said, including a Nutmeg Award from the Connecticut Library Association and Connecticut Association of School Librarians.
The final 20 minutes of the nearly 2-hour meeting included questions from committee members.
Staples English teacher Ann Neary asked McLaughlin how she defined “safe space.”
“I was harassed from 7th to 12th grade,” she responded. “I still carry that. Harassment would not be allowed in the workplace, and it should not be allowed in a school.”
Community member Sivan Hong wondered why McLaughlin had taken other books off her list of those she wants removed.
“I was looking for low-hanging fruit,” she said. “These 3 have to go. They’re horrendous. But the rest should go too.
“I’m doing this out of service to the children in our schools. I wish someone had done that for me.”
Buono asked why McLaughlin would not object to the 3 books being in the Westport Library.
“They’re different standards,” she replied. “There are kids as young as 13 at Staples. Any book there is an explicit endorsement of it.”
McLaughlin concluded with an analogy she’d used earlier. “Even if the rest of ‘Finding Nemo’ is great, but there’s a sex scene in the middle, we don’t show it to 1st graders. If the whole book isn’t good, don’t use it.”
The ad hoc committee will continue its work. Two more meetings will be scheduled, at which the public can speak,
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