LGBTQ+ books quietly removed from Washington State college
In what reads like a story we see frequently across the country, a school principal in Kent, Washington, removed a series of books from the library at Cedar Heights Middle School in anticipation of possible publicity for these documents made available to students. This “silent”, “silent” or “soft” censorship has taken place from Pennsylvania to Florida, from Wisconsin to Washington, and because it is so rarely reported, less attention has been paid to these stories than those where protesters show up at school board meetings. .
Gavin Downing, librarian at Cedar Heights, chose to expand the library’s LGBTQ+ resources during the school year in accordance with the district’s policy on supplemental materials. Policy 2020P notes that additional material is selected based on a number of factors, including that it “provides a non-stereotypical presentation of diverse racial, ethnic, gender and ability groups”. Items purchased for the library must comply with this policy, as well as resist standards of decency in their depictions of sex and obscenitiesguided by professional journals.
All materials purchased for the library are guided by the same formal challenge procedures as those for the curriculum, as outlined in Policy 2020P above. Library materials, while sometimes supplementing the curriculum, are not supplementary materials. These are options of choice.
Downing, after researching suitable titles to add to the collection serving 7th and 8th graders, was LC Rosen’s Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts). the the book received favorable reviewsand Downing carefully examined it.
“On Thursday, December 9, my manager walked into the library, carrying the book, looking quite upset,” Downing explained. “She said a student came to see her and shared a section of the book and wanted to know why she allowed it at school.”
When asked if the principal had read the book, she said no, and Downing said he stood by his inclusion of the book in the library and the student and/or his parents could file a formal complaint, in accordance with the policy. The principal agreed to read the entire book before continuing.
The next day, she emailed Downing asking for a list of all “sexually explicit books” in the library. A few hours later, she then called for an after school meeting and asked Downing to bring all the “sexually explicit” books with me.
“I brought union representation to this meeting, as well as several books that had been accused of being sexually explicit over the years: Speak, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Hate U Give, a human biology book , a pregnancy book, Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, the Bible and a few others,” Downing said.
The meeting did not go well.
Principal Erika Hanson called jack of hearts “exhibition” and felt it was inappropriate for 12-14 year olds to have access to the school library.
“[S]he thought our students should see no relationship in their media to anything other than holding hands or maybe kissing. She felt that my selection of ‘sexually explicit’ books that I brought to the meeting indicated that I didn’t take her seriously,” Downing explained.
The principal then mentioned “how bad the school would look” if a parent complained.
Also, Hanson had another book on his desk from the library collection. It was if i was your girlfriend by Meredith Russo. She said a student also complained about the title. the well rated book by and about a trans person was inappropriate because “in one scene, a guy puts his hand under a girl’s skirt”.
Downing referred to the process of challenging the books as a matter of policy – and indeed if it was a student complaining about the books they could go through the appropriate channels – but the headmistress claimed she had the power to overrule this policy. She could pull any book at any time.
Before the start of the winter holidays, Downing contacted union leadership to express concern, and management said they would investigate the situation as they, too, were uneasy. They contacted the district’s teaching and learning department and spoke with DeNelle West, who would investigate. West was concerned about these decisions.
But on January 6, after the break and immediately after Downing placed an order for more library books, an email from the principal landed in his inbox. He had four points:
- She had the right to pull any book at any time. The same board policy giving it the power to do so for classroom libraries extended more broadly to the school library. she would shoot jack of hearts and If I was your girl.
- She demanded that all “sexually explicit” materials in the library be turned over to her by Friday, January 14, so she could remove them from the collection. She provided a definition of “sexually explicit material” from the Federal Trade Commission.
- The principal would have to check every book Downing wanted to buy for the collection so she could have final approval.
- She would set up a council at the school to give Downing guidelines on “age-appropriate material”.
Downing forwarded the email to the union, which discovered that one of West’s superiors had decided to support the headmistress in her decision to remove the books.
The librarian continued to seek help, including reaching out to the state GLSEN chapter. One of Washington’s GLSEN board members, Joe Bento, is also on the Kent School District Board of Trustees. Despite his own involvement and advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ students, Bento’s concerns also went unaddressed.
Downing responded to the director’s email on Thursday, January 13, the day before his deadline. He noted that there were legal and ethical issues with his demands, and he asked for a sit-down discussion.
Instead of setting up a date, the next day the principal announced that the school’s department heads were losing purchasing power. All purchases should now go directly through her.
“Plus, she started reaching out to other directors, telling them to start pulling books and pay attention to specific titles,” Downing said.
“On Wednesday, when I arrived at work, I found that my last order of books was waiting for me. But the boxes were already open, and one book was missing: Not all boys are blue by George M. Johnson,” he added. “When I was in the office later that day, I spotted the book sitting on my assistant manager’s desk. They never sent me a notice about taking the book.
Downing was authorized by his union to contact the media to discuss this censorship, since the channels he went through all indicated that Hanson was the authority on the decisions. No official complaints about the books have ever been filed. Instead, the headmistress took it upon herself to remove the books and require all books to be approved by her before being added to the library.
This is in direct conflict with the district’s own collection development policy, as well as in conflict with their recently announced plans to revolutionize school libraries at the district level. Specifically, this censorship of queer voices is not aligned with the third phase of their plan which aims to “strengthen equity and excellence”.
The principal’s decision to implement a supplementary materials policy calls into question the role of the school library more broadly. The collection offers materials that are complementary, but this is not the primary mission of the school library – this is particularly clear from reading the objectives to revolutionize these facilities. The union maintains that library books are prime materials and do not fall under the jurisdiction over supplemental materials of the school’s instructional materials committee. When the union contacted the Kent school’s acting principal, they feared the removal of the books could be a civil rights violation.
Christine Avery, the district’s executive director for improving learning, insists the library’s collections are supplemental materials and supports Hanson’s decision. It was likely this decision, along with the agreement of Jim Schechl, the district’s other executive director of learning improvement, that led to conversations around blocking book deletions.
The union and Downing argue that since library materials are not required reading, they are a choice.
Downing’s story shows what is happening at large, but in a way that many never hear about. Too often, whistleblowers face retaliation for speaking out (see: Brooky Parks in the High Plains Library District) or emerge from those without the power to make policy changes (see: Golden Sower awards). In this story, Downing exhausted all the resources at his disposal and because of this had to contact the media to amplify the story and put pressure on the school and the board.
The school board met on Wednesday, January 26, before this article was published and before this story had a chance to reach a wide audience. But that’s where writing letters and seeking additional coverage if you’re in the area from local media will help shine a light on this story and others like it.
Members of the Kent School District School Board are listed here, and each member’s email is included. Bento would make a great first litter, given his involvement in queer student advocacy. You can also contact the acting district superintendentas well as other members of the school’s administrative team, including their team dedicated to equity issues.
Downing reports that other librarians in the district are also preparing for the impact in their facilities from their directors.