SPRING LAKE, Mich. (WOOD) — A group of parents is upset after the Spring Lake Public Schools superintendent sent a letter home Friday that explained the district’s decision to keep a book dealing with gender and sexuality in the high school’s library.
The graphic novel “Gender Queer” explores a young adult’s journey of self-identity. Some Spring Lake parents say some of the images and content is too sexual and graphic in nature for high school-aged students.
“Parents like myself and others whom I’ve spoken to just don’t believe that sexually explicit content should be available in our school libraries,” Becki Deater, a concerned parent, said. “Our kids that are age 14 to 17 can’t go to rated-R movies by themselves, so why should they be able to view this type of content in a school setting? It’s just not appropriate for this age.”
According to Superintendent Dennis Furton, an official complaint was lodged in May. The district’s Material Review Committee looked at the book in question and found “the book served a greater interest (combating isolation, affirming a child’s reality) than restricting access or removing the book altogether.”
Furton said the review committee is comprised of school staffers, board members and parents. He said that “in 15 years (since the policy was instituted) we’ve never had a book complaint made in Spring Lake. So we never had to utilize this particular policy.”
Deater said parents’ concerns aren’t just about “Gender Queer.”
“Unfortunately, our superintendent chose to send an email last Friday focusing just on that book, but the controversy is much more than that,” she said. “There are many other sexually explicit materials available in our library to kids at the high school as young as 14 years old.”
The final decision is made by the superintendent, but if the complainant decides to appeal that decision, it goes to the school board for a vote.
Furton said he thinks the growing controversy will be discussed either during next week’s board meeting or at its November meeting.
“There’s a lot to the story, it’s about an individual who is ultimately determines they are nonbinary and asexual,” he said. “There are benefits for students who may be experiencing similar feelings or questions for them to have resources available.”
Furton’s full letter to families:
“I’ve received a few questions recently about a book that is currently available to students in our High School Media Center and wanted to be sure that all parents had the same accurate information about this situation.
“Gender Queer: A Memoir is a 2019 graphic memoir written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe. The story recounts Kobabe’s adolescent and adult struggles related to gender identity and sexuality. Kobabe ultimately identifies as nonbinary. The book is controversial, having been banned by many school systems across the US. Critics of the book describe the imagery in this graphic novel as pornographic and inappropriate for even high school aged students. Supporters counter that the story is poignant and important for students struggling with questions similar to Kobabe’s – that the book’s unique storyline outweighs concerns over the imagery it contains.
“In Spring Lake there have been two complaints lodged against Gender Queer. District policy (attached) dictates that book complaints be made to the principal of the building where the book is located. The principal then consults with the superintendent and, when appropriate, a Material Review Committee is appointed to review the book. This mechanism is in place to assure that parents can challenge material that they feel should not be available to students, whatever their reasons. The review committee’s decision may be appealed to the Board of Education. With regard to Gender Queer, the Material Review Committee met and determined that maintaining the book served a greater interest (combating isolation, affirming a child’s reality) than restricting access or removing the book altogether. There is, to be sure, ample room for disagreement on that decision. The complainants had the option of appealing the decision to the Board of Education and neither did.
“This leaves us with a bit of a controversy swirling within the community. Some parents and community members are unhappy that the District has purchased the book and continues to make it available. The District continues to rely on our book complaint policy and to trust that the process for challenging material works while understanding that the existence of this policy is recognition of the fact that we will not find universal agreement as to the merit of some books.
“It is important to have a policy that allows for the challenge of materials. At the same time, it is important to trust staff to make informed decisions about the selection and purchase of materials. If a parent disagrees with these decisions, in addition to filing a complaint, District policy assures the parent the right to prohibit their child from checking out the book from District media centers. Interested parents can forbid their child from checking out any book by contacting the building’s media center staff – then, the District’s circulation system will prohibit staff from checking out the named book to that student. That’s the balance we strike, and while it is not the balance some would seek, it recognizes the interests of all parties.
“I’m not writing to you today to convince you of the merit of Gender Queer or to defend the decision of the committee. My purpose in sending this letter is to share the reason the committee kept the book (above in bold and underlined) and to spell out the policy that protects parental rights.
“This has been a remarkable start to the school year. Staff and students have brought an energy and enthusiasm to their work that is impressive by even our always high expectations. Thank you, as always, for entrusting your wonderful children to our care.
“Dennis Furton, Superintendent”
Editor’s Note: The article has been revised to clarify the decision-making process as to whether or not to ban a book.