Controversial books will stay in Natrona County school library

By: 
Maya Shimizu Harris with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — After roughly a year of dispute, Natrona County school board trustees voted Monday to keep two controversial LGBTQ books in one of the district’s high school libraries, with the condition that parents be given an opt-in option for their kids to access the titles. 

They also voted to approve policy additions that make stricter requirements for purchasing controversial library materials in the future and require school libraries to maintain a list onsite or on the library’s website that shows what’s in circulation for students. 

Trustee Kianna Smith was the only board member who voted against the motion to keep the books because she disagreed with including the opt-in option. 

Monday night’s votes bring to a close at least one chapter of the debate over what kind of learning materials should be available to students at public schools — a discussion that emerged with force following the COVID-19 pandemic and that has touched schools across the nation. 

In Wyoming, parents in Laramie County School District No. 1 targeted several LGBTQ-related books. (District officials said they didn’t plan to remove them.) In Campbell County, community members filed complaints with the public library about more than 30 books concerning LGBTQ topics. Earlier this month, the Park County No. 6 school board voted to keep in the Cody High School library a book about a transgender romance. 

Parents and other community members in Natrona County started coming to school board meetings about a year ago demanding that certain books they described as “pornographic” be removed from the Kelly Walsh High School library. 

But while some have described the books as pornographic, others have said repeatedly that this definition isn’t fitting. And many have questioned why those advocating for banning the books haven’t focused their attention on other non-LGBTQ materials that are also sexually explicit. 

Trustee Dana Howie voiced her suspicion that the controversy over these books doesn’t center around their sexually explicit content, but rather around LGBTQ issues in general. 

“The emphasis has always seemed to be on LGBTQ, because some of you seem to think it’s a choice,” she said. 

Rev. Dee Lundberg and others brought up that other books like the Bible, for example, also contains explicit content. 

“If you so choose to ban those books, I respectfully request that you ban the Bible,” Lundberg said. 

But community members who have advocated for getting rid of the books continued to push back against those arguments on Monday. 

Renea Redding, a member of the local Moms for Liberty chapter who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board, said again that they aren’t “looking to erase a community,” but rather to get rid of “sexually explicit content” from school libraries. 

Jeanette Ward, who was voted in as the representative for House District 57 earlier this month, said that “the Bible does not go into explicit detail like these books that we’re talking about.” 

A committee tasked with reviewing the books — “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s exploration of gender and sexuality, and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a resource guide for transgender individuals — decided in September that they should stay at the high school library. 

But some community members appealed the decision, putting it on the school board itself to take a final vote on the matter. 

The policy additions were met with enthusiasm from some and skepticism from others when trustees discussed the draft at the Nov. 14 school board meeting. 

Although trustees made some tweaks to include feedback from community members, the updated policy still failed on Monday to gain the room’s full consensus. 

Several people brought up worry that the revised policy could be used to specifically target LGBTQ books. Outgoing trustee Dave Applegate acknowledged those concerns. 

“I think the future will speak loudly to that,” Applegate said, noting that, if in the future there’s a slate of books with LGBTQ content brought forward for reconsideration, then that will “speak to the good or bad faith of the folks that come forward with the two books.” 

On top of those worries, some expressed fear for the future following the election of new school board members who have advocated for getting rid of the books in question and others. 

Earlier this month, community members rejected incumbent school board trustees Smith and Debbie McCullar and voted in two mothers — Mary Schmidt and Jenifer Hopkins — who have taken the lead on getting books they deem inappropriate out of the district’s school libraries. 

Schmidt and Hopkins are both members of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, an organization that has played a prominent role in getting certain books banned from school libraries across the country. 

“This is a modern red scare. It’s a rainbow scare,” Zach Schneider, a Natrona County High School teacher who was on the committee that reviewed the books, said. “We are being targeted. We’re being targeted not just by radical people, we’re being targeted by people who are about to be on this board.” 

Michael Stedillie, a retired teacher who has advocated against getting rid of the books, was the top vote-getter in the school board election. 

Kevin Christopherson, a former school board member, also won a seat. 

Several people attending Monday’s meeting decried a post on Schmidt’s campaign Facebook page warning that the “battle is far from over,” since the “other side” voted in Stedillie. 

“He is for the sexualization of children,” the post reads. “He claims not to like it, but supports it because... representation and inclusion.” 

Stedillie and Schmidt sat next to each other at the meeting. They didn’t talk about the Facebook post, according to Stedillie. 

 

This story was published on Nov. 30, 2022.

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