FARMINGTON — Several members of the gay and lesbian community came to the Davis School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday to give voice to the controversy surrounding a book removed from school library shelves because it featured a family led by a same-gender couple.
But school board president Marian Storey said the board would not hear public comment on issues that were not listed on the agenda and said a meeting could be scheduled to discuss the removal of "In Our Mothers' House" from elementary school libraries.
The controversy erupted last month when the book was pulled from shelves and placed behind the counter at Windridge Elementary in Kaysville, and four other elementary schools in the district, following a complaint from a mother concerned that her kindergartner read the book.
Per district policy, the mother's complaint was first reviewed by the school's library media committee, which determined that the book should be moved to a section of the library for older students. The mother then appealed that decision to the district library media committee by presenting a petition with 25 signatures and accompanying comments, the minimum required for such an appeal.
"Throughout the process the policy that exists has been followed," Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams.
The district provided a copy of the petition to The Deseret News, shedding light on the concerns of parents, many of whom saw value in the book and its message of tolerance, but who objected to the way the message was delivered and the lack of parental control over what young children could access at elementary school.
The name of each petitioner was redacted, but one parent who appears to be the woman who led the petition wrote that she objects to the subject of homosexuality in schools.
She wrote, "My kindergarten student came home with this book. I felt it was inappropriate for her level. A book that discusses sexuality is best left in a public library, not a school, where children are accompanied by a parent to help them make book selections."
When answering what she believes the theme or purpose of the book is, she wrote: "It is trying to teach tolerance, through the topic of homosexuality. I believe tolerance is good to teach but this book came across as propaganda."
Williams said the district has dealt with complaints about books in the past — usually concerning texts in the high school curriculum. "In Our Mothers' House" is the first example of a book being removed from library shelves that he can recall in his 13 years with the district.
Last week, the ACLU of Utah requested a meeting with Davis superintendent Bryan Bowles to discuss what it viewed as constitutional concerns with the district's decision. Days later, anti-censorship group The Kids’ Right to Read Project wrote a similar letter, asking district officials to reconsider.
Davis library officials were unavailable for comment, but Rick Anthony, Director of Education Technology for the Granite District said librarians have to maximize resources when filling library shelves.
He said librarians are given a set of criteria to follow when making selections. They are encouraged to find books that provide a range of viewpoints and ideas, but their main priority is selecting texts that enrich and support the classroom curriculum.
Granite's district policy, like the Davis district, includes a committee at the school level to address concerns from parents, who can then appeal to the district. Since schools can't realistically carry every book, Anthony said schools in any district value dialogue with the community in determining what to make available to students.
"At the end of the day, you want to do what's best for kids," he said.
Kristjane Nordmeyer, assistant professor of sociology at Westminster College, said despite the availability of the book by permission slip, putting the book behind the counter effectively bans it.
"It's making their stories invisible," she said. "It's cutting off a lot of discussion."
She said moving the book behind the counter sends the message to children of same-gender parents that there is something wrong with their family, she said.
The petitioners own words sheds light on the various levels of concern brought by the book. While answering what the purpose or theme of the book was, one parent wrote: "I believe it glamorizes and normalizes something that is a sensitive issue."
On another question, the same parent wrote: "This is propaganda because it puts forth an idea, then makes it look attractive and normal. It portrays that if you don't embrace it then you have a hole in your heart."
Emily Ellsworth, a Lindon mother and blogger who reviews children's books and young adult fiction, said parents naturally feel a concern for what their children are exposed to but should handle concerns individually instead of imposing on others. She said authors of picture books, like "In Our Mothers' House," will often take difficult subjects and present them in a simple, light-handed format that can help parents begin a conversation with their children.
Ellsworth gave the example of the book "Grandpa Green" by Lane Smith, which approaches the subject of aging and death while still being a whimsical story for children. Ellsworth's two-year-old daughter is too young to grasp the nuances of life and death, but she likes the pictures in "Grandpa Green."
"They're sticky subjects and sensitive subjects and sometimes a book is the best way to begin that discussion," she said.
But the subtlety and simplicity of the message is what concerned some who submitted the petition, as well as the portrayal of some of the characters in the book.
Wrote one petitioner: "I also do not like that the reference of a non-accepting neighbor as fearful and not 'understanding' instead of not accepting." The petitioner went on to write that "the intent of the book is okay. I believe it may have its place, just not openly accessible. Parents should be able to chose whether or not they want to approach this discussion with their children," the petitioner wrote.
Weston Clark, a gay man and stay-at-home dad, came to Tuesday's meeting with the intent of addressing the board. Clark said he submitted a request to be placed on the agenda and was initially granted permission to introduce himself, but his request was later denied.
Weston, a Woods Cross High School graduate and former employee of Davis School District, said there is a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication surrounding the content of "In Our Mothers' House" and he had hoped the public setting of the board meeting would be a venue to provide clarity.
"Ultimately, it's a discussion that needs to be had," he said. "From my time in the community I think the people of Davis County are much more loving than this."
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