GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In an email to staff at Forest Hills Public Schools, superintendent Dan Behm apologized for pulling six controversial books from libraries, including some that cover LGBTQ issues.
“Last June, I made a decision to have some books removed from our high school media centers. This was wrong. I take full responsibility for this mistake,” wrote Behm, who had previously stopped short of calling his actions a “mistake.”
“I am sorry that I did not do better sooner in this issue. Although my remaining time serving alongside you as superintendent is not long, I remain fully committed to my own learning and supporting you and your selfless efforts to help all kids learn, grow, and thrive,” he wrote.
The email went out to staff late Wednesday night.
Thursday morning, Behm told Target 8 he has no plans to resign and has “the full support” of the school board.
Behm, who’s led the Forest Hills district for 17 years, noted he’s mentioned for several years that he’s close to retirement.
Parents on both sides of the cultural divide over books had called for Behm to come clean regarding his role in the removal of six titles from Forest Hills media centers.
‘GET RID OF THEM’
The National Coalition against Censorship called on the school board to investigate Behm’s actions.
In a Feb. 8 news release, the coalition also shared an audio recording of a meeting in which a man identified as Behm acknowledged he’d ordered the removal of what he called “R-rated” books.
In an interview with Target 8 Monday, Behm did not refute the voice in the recording was his.
Target 8 has confirmed the meeting between Behm and at least two parents pushing to pull books took place July 25, 2022.
In the recording, Behm told the parents he’d instructed the assistant superintendent for instruction to “get rid of … R-rated books.”
“I’ve said to them, in my office, private meetings, ‘there’s no reason for us to have anything here where it would be at best an R-rated movie … it’s restricted to kids under the age of 18,” said Behm in the recorded meeting. “I have no desire for that in any of our schools. I find it embarrassing that those things are there. And I just said, ‘Get rid of them.’ I don’t need you or some other parent to have the burden to come in to go through some bureaucratic process. We have the authority as administrators to just pull them. So I said, ‘Go find where they are. Pull them. Get rid of them. Go in the online catalog system and delete them from the online catalog system.’ … We’ve done that previously with non-administrative staff members. Media clerks, if you will, going through and looking and saying, ‘This book hasn’t been checked out since 1982, we’re not going to give it any more space on the shelf.’ … So if we can (give) some clerical person that authority to do that, I’m telling you, ‘Go get these books and get rid of them. If people are looking for them, they can go to Amazon or they can go find some other place. That’s not our purpose.'”
The library weeding log for the month of June, obtained by Target 8 through a public records request, showed an administrator deleted six books from the district’s high schools and at least one middle school.
In an interview with Target 8 Monday, Behm acknowledged it was the district’s office of instruction that identified and removed the books, half of which had made national lists of the most challenged books.
One of them, “Beyond Magenta,” features essays by transgender teens.
All six of the books are among the titles targeted by FH Parents United, a group that claims Forest Hills libraries and classrooms have “explicit, hyper-sexualized and age-inappropriate content.”
In a Feb. 16 letter to parents, Behm said the weeding of the six books happened as administrators checked to ensure elementary students did not have access to mature content.
“Recent reports have circulated that administrators have banned books. That is not accurate,” Behm wrote in the February letter to parents. “Instead, steps have been taken to ensure that books with mature content are not in the collection of materials available to elementary students. Furthermore, some books that have been the subject of controversy among some adults happen to be among books that have been weeded out of the collection because they have not been checked out in years or, in some cases, ever.”
Target 8 asked Behm on Monday for the checkout history of the six books in questions, but he later said he’d been unable to locate the circulation data.
In his email to staff Wednesday night, Behm acknowledged he’d seized the opportunity to pull books that have sparked conflict.
“For 24 months, our board meetings typically contain a crowd of people angrily commenting about a variety of issues and topics,” wrote Behm in his email to staff.
“Often, someone reads a passage from a library book that contains profanity, descriptive violence, or sexual situations and then claims that we are teaching this content in our classrooms,” wrote Behm, noting that “only a fraction of one percent of our high school library books” contain such content. “To try to quiet the storm and ‘de-weaponize’ books I mistakenly jumped at the realization that some of these books were rarely checked out and I thought that weeding them was acceptable. This was wrong.”
‘WE NEED LGBTQ+ BOOKS’
Behm also acknowledged that some of the books his administration removed are about the LGBTQ community.
“We have to treat all people with kindness, respect and love,” wrote Behm to his staff. “Too often, people who identify as gay, lesbian, trans, or non-binary are marginalized or much worse. … We need books in our libraries that reflect the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. Everyone should be able to see themselves – their identity, their faith tradition, their culture, their family structure, and so much more – in some of the books that they choose to read. People should be able to read and learn about communities, cultures, and stories that may be unfamiliar to them, too.”
Behm went on to express his gratitude to media center employees he said are working to create consistent procedures for acquiring, storing, accessing and weeding books.
Behm told staff the district is also creating a system to “provide parents and families with the ability to set personal preferences for how their own child(ren) can access various materials in our media centers.”
‘REPEATED DENIALS,’ INVESTIGATION NEEDED
The National Coalition against Censorship, contacted by Target 8, released a statement regarding Behm’s letter to staff.
“After repeated denials, Superintendent Behm has acknowledged that he improperly ordered the removal of controversial books from Forest Hills school libraries,” wrote Christopher Finan, executive director of the coalition. “(Behm) has apologized and ordered the return of six books to the shelves. But two sources have said that four other books were removed: It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab and Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. In light of the superintendent’s previous misstatements, only a thorough investigation by the school board can establish whether these and possibly other titles are still missing.”