The Fight for the Soul of a School Board

Five years ago, Tamara and Cirt Yancy moved to Nixa, Missouri, for the schools. The town sits on the Ozark Plateau, a dozen miles from Springfield, in the southwest corner of the state. In the past thirty years, its population has more than quadrupled, from five thousand to more than twenty thousand, turning a small agricultural community into a manicured enclave of recently constructed town houses set amid rolling hills. Twice in the past decade, its high school was designated a “blue-ribbon school” by the U.S. Department of Education; U.S. News & World Report rated it as the top high school in the area.

The Yancys, who have three children, were living in a Seattle suburb, which had become prohibitively expensive; Missouri, where Cirt had gone to high school, seemed a better bet. Culturally and politically, though, Nixa was a shock. It’s in the middle of the Bible Belt, with large Pentecostal and Baptist congregations. In 2020, Donald Trump received nearly seventy-five per cent of the vote in Christian County, where Nixa is the largest city. “It’s a nice area, but I did not know the political climate at all,” Tamara, who had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, told me. “It’s hard to be vocal about your beliefs in Nixa unless it’s straight, white, Christian, conservative, Republican.”

The Yancys first heard rumblings about a book ban in early 2022. On Facebook, people were saying that a small group of women in Nixa had begun filing official removal requests for books they considered to be pornographic, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (The complaint against “The Bluest Eye” reads, “Children of any age don’t need to be ‘educated’ on their mother’s sexual fantasies, incestual rape or unapologetic pedophilia.”) “The book bans came out of the blue,” Tamara told me. “I didn’t even know that in this day and age that was a thing, or that anyone would consider banning a book for any reason.”

By mid-April, the women had officially objected to sixteen books. It was the first time in more than fifteen years that anyone had requested a book be removed from the school’s library shelves. The Yancys and their Facebook friends, most of whom had never met in person, began talking about how to push back. “We created this book-warriors group,” Cirt said. “We’re going to fight to keep the books in the library.”

They called their group U-Turn in Education, to mirror the name of No Left Turn in Education, a national right-wing organization that, in 2020, began a crusade to insure that critical race theory was not taught in schools. The warriors were optimistic, Cirt told me. They built a Web site, in part to inform parents in the community that there was already a policy in place to restrict access to books they did not want their children reading.

To evaluate the books in question, the school administration appointed a set of committees, which eventually recommended that four of the books remain on the shelves: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Homegoing,” “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto.” The committees also recommended that the other twelve books be “retained with restrictions,” meaning that they would not be shelved openly and could be checked out only with parental permission. But that, it turned out, was not the end of it. The women who initiated the book-removal requests appealed three of the committees’ recommendations. The seven-member school board would have to decide if “Fun Home” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” both queer coming of age memoirs, and “Homegoing” a multigenerational novel about the ramifications of the slave trade, would be allowed to remain in the high-school library. That decision, which was to be announced at a school-board meeting, would be final.

On May 12, 2022, hundreds of Nixa residents filed into the community room of the school district’s administrative building. Hundreds more were in a nearby overflow room or at home, watching on a live stream. Most members of U-Turn were in attendance, as were about twenty high-school students. Before the meeting started, the students had presented the school board with a petition opposing the removal of books from the library; of the three hundred and forty-five students whom they’d approached, only five chose not to sign it.

One of the petition’s organizers, Meghana Nakkanti, a junior at the time and a member of the debate team, was the first speaker during the public-comment period. She cited Miller v. California, the 1973 Supreme Court case that redefined obscenity from that which is “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which lacks “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” a criterion, she said, met by none of the books in question. Another student, Justice Jones, who reported on the book bans in the school magazine, helping to spark student opposition, pointed out that “limiting a student on the perspectives they can read is not preparing them for the types of people they would encounter outside of school.” Tamara Yancy spoke, too. “I don’t really have much to say, because I think that you guys probably will listen to the students,” she said. “Their voice should be the loudest. Theirs should be the one you should consider. It’s their library.”

Most of the chairs in the community room, though, were occupied by people who had come to voice their opposition to the books on the docket, many of them members of a private Facebook group named Concerned Parents of Nixa. Some of the speakers called the school librarians pedophiles and groomers who should be arrested and put on a national sex-offenders registry. The final speaker, a Nixa student named Alex Rapp, went off script. He addressed the librarians directly, saying, “We as a student body are behind you and will support you.” And then, one by one, the school-board members were polled on the choice to retain, restrict, or remove each book. In the end, they voted to restrict “Homegoing,” whereas the two queer memoirs would be permanently removed from the school library. “I am not for bans for any reason,” Tamara told me. “But it would be one thing if a book was never in the library because, during the vetting process, it was decided that it was not appropriate. It’s a totally different story to have it in the library and then physically removed. That, to me, is a lot worse.”

Many of the books being challenged in Nixa are on lists posted by Book Look and Book Looks, Web sites spun out of the dark-money-funded, conservative organization Moms for Liberty. Besides nearly identical names, the Web sites have complementary goals. Book Looks stated mission is to provide “reviews centered around objectionable content, including profanity, nudity, and sexual content”; Book Look’s “plan of action” is to get people “engaged with outrage” and to vote out school-board members who “refuse to work on this issue.” According to research by PEN America, nationally, more than sixteen hundred books were banned between July, 2021, and June, 2022, and most of them addressed L.G.B.T.Q.+ themes or had a protagonist or prominent secondary character of color. Most of those books were targeted by groups that did not exist before 2020, but which now, the report notes, “share lists of books to challenge, and . . . employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography,’ and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians.” Tamara, who is a substitute teacher, told me that she has been called a groomer and a pedophile “many, many times.”

In southwest Missouri, the book bans were also being promoted by Andy Wells, who was then the head of the state chapter of No Left Turn in Education. Wells, a former Army helicopter mechanic, is hostile to what he calls “government” schools. At a recent gathering of the Stanley M. Herzog Foundation, which gives scholarships to families to send their children to private Christian schools, he said, “This is a place where we, we as Christians, have the option to send our children to where we want them to be educated, not where the people who want to change society want them to be educated.” According to lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued the Wentzville, Missouri, school district over its book-removal policy, Wells is part of “a targeted campaign . . . to remove particular ideas and viewpoints about race and sexuality from school libraries” and “has advised that challengers should talk about sexual content in the books rather than sexual orientation, sexual identity, or race to avoid legal scrutiny.” (Wells denied that the campaign’s intention is discriminatory and maintained that it was about removing explicit material from schools; the suit was withdrawn when most of the books were returned to the library shelves.)

Groups such as No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty are now active in hundreds of school districts around the country. A number of state legislatures have taken up their cause. Around the time of the book bans in Nixa, Rick Brattin, a Missouri state senator, proposed legislation that would make it a Class A misdemeanor for anyone affiliated with a public or private school to provide students with “obscene” material. “In schools all across the country, we’ve seen this disgusting and inappropriate content making its way into our classrooms,” Brattin said. “Instead of recognizing this as the threat it is, some schools are actually fighting parents to protect this filth. The last place our children should be seeing pornography is in our schools.”

Two months later, a version of Brattin’s provision was added to a sex-trafficking bill, S.B. 775, making it illegal to expose a student in a K-12 school to “explicitly sexual” visual material, without defining the meaning of “explicitly sexual.” Nonetheless, any school employee found to have done so can be jailed for a year and fined two thousand dollars. The law went into effect last August. According to Colleen Norman, who chairs the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, teachers, administrators, and librarians, fearful of running afoul of the law, began removing books from their classrooms and school libraries: “Because the law is vague, schools are overreacting and pulling everything that could possibly in any way be deemed inappropriate, because they’re afraid of a lawsuit.”

In February, the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the prosecuting attorney in Jackson County (as a proxy for all Missouri prosecuting attorneys) on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association, challenging S.B. 775, which it called “the government censorship law that caused school districts across the state to order the removal of hundreds of titles from library shelves.” Weeks later, the chair of the Missouri House Budget Committee, Cody Smith, retaliated by removing all funding for public libraries from the state budget. Though S.B. 775 is specific to schools and school libraries, Smith expressed anger that the Missouri Library Association was a party to the suit. “I don’t think we should subsidize that effort,” he said at the time. “We are going to take out the funding and that is why.” In April, the Missouri House agreed with him, passing a budget that eliminated the four and a half million dollars that had been allocated for the state’s four hundred public libraries. (The Republican chairman of the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee is apparently moving to block the effort; he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “There is no way that money is not going back into the budget.”)

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