LAS Board of Education Recap: Library Book Complaint, School Psychologist Intern

On Monday evening, a considerable crowd was in attendance at the Lowell Area Schools Board of Education work session. The board holds work sessions monthly, and the main topic of discussion in February was a committee report regarding a challenge made to a book in the Lowell High School library. All board members were present for the meeting.

Public Comments

The meeting started off with public comments, and five community members took to the podium to voice their views. Most of the comments were addressing the memoir, “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” Last year, one LAS parent submitted a formal challenge to have the title removed from the Lowell High School library. The book currently has restricted access; only seniors may check it out.

At previous Board of Education meetings, public comments have been made raising concerns about a passage of the book describing a sexual encounter. Earlier in February, the parent who filed the compliant also noted that it contained swearing and appeared to violate board policy on controversial material.

According to its description on GoodReads, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is “a series of personal essays” by “prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson.”  It includes “memories of getting his teeth kicked out by bullies at age five, to flea marketing with his loving grandmother, to his first sexual relationships…”

Erin Brandt, a community member and parent of three children at Lowell schools, was the first to speak. Brandt said that she had a “hard time” with the parent who wanted to ban the book from the LAS library because she felt that “…we have bigger things to worry about.” She mentioned the recent shooting at Michigan State University and asked that the focus of LAS parents be on student safety and mental health services.

An eighth grader at Lowell Middle School stood next and said that she objected to the parents who she felt wanted to dictate what she could read. She added that,”… parents should be happy in this age of technology and smart phones that we want to read a book at all.” She said that she appreciated the fact that her parents have allowed her to read what she wants, because “…it has made me a better person. It has made me more aware of things happening in the world and other people’s scenarios that might be different from mine.”

Resident Parker Liu addressed the board to say that he thought “All Boys Aren’t Blue” should remain in the LAS library. He added, “When considering the Miller test for standards, this book provides significant literary value, as it was written with the intent of sharing a genuine story that may be relatable or inspirational to others.” The Miller test that Liu refers to is the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for determining whether speech, spoken or written, can be labeled as “obscene” or whether it must be protected under the First Amendment. Liu said that because the book is written as a memoir and documents the author’s experiences growing up, it could serve as a resource to others with similar life experiences.

LAS parent Lacey Charboneau spoke about the “nationwide movement to remove certain books from libraries” and compared it to the 1980’s campaign for some music albums to contain a “parental advisory label” if it was deemed unsuitable for children. She said that the end result of the campaign was that sales of the albums with the warning label skyrocketed. She compared this to the fact that before the Lowell High School book challenge, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” had only been checked out once in two years. After the book challenge and all of the controversy surrounding it, the book has since been checked out continuously.

Former Board of Education member and Lowell resident Mark Blanding said he thought that banning a book was a “…big waste of time and an attempt to sow division in the community. It doesn’t represent who we are, and it doesn’t help the education of our kids. Freedom is what we’re about. Reading is good for kids.”

Board Discussion of the Library Book Complaint

Before the board’s discussion of the book challenge, Superintendent Nate Fowler said there would be no votes or action concerning the book during the evening, only dialogue among the board regarding a committee recommendation that the book remain at LAS.

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen explained that following board policy, after the book was formally challenged, a committee was formed to read the book and make a recommendation to the board. He said that there was careful consideration in who was present on the committee: they wanted parents, students and teachers to weigh in. The seven member committee voted 6-1 to keep the book as it was, restricted to seniors only at the high school.

VanderMeulen also mentioned that at this time, an informal complaint about a different book has been received. He said that if that evolves into a formal complaint, the whole process would begin again. Another committee would need to be formed, they would read the book in question, again meet for discussion, make a recommendation, and then that decision would go to the superintendent and on to the Board of Education.

Many board members said they had read “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and though the book is not one they might normally pick out to read, they appreciated that the memoir allowed them to hear a perspective different from their own.

Pat Nugent reminded the members of the community gathered for the meeting that, according to board policy, no action was required of the board regarding the fate of the book other than to review the committee’s decision. He said that whether the board wanted to make some sort of formal statement regarding the book challenge and the committee’s recommendation could be discussed during the March meeting.

Nugent also said that he felt the parts of the book that some considered objectionable were “pretty minimal” when the reader considered the entirety of the book. He said that the book had already been restricted as much as it could be in the library, and he urged parents to take advantage of the systems in place in LAS libraries that give them the ability to restrict their child’s access to certain books or topics if their family makes the decision to do so.

Laurie Kuna said that she enjoyed the book and mentioned a recent statement by the ACLU of Michigan sent to the State Board of Education reminding public school boards that they are legally bound to support students’ right to read. She said that, “…as a public educational institution, we’re preparing young people for going out into the world as adults…” and that the district shouldn’t “…deny them the opportunity to read about things that they don’t know about.”

Jared Blough mentioned that he thought the author could have gotten his point across without some of the more objectionable passages.

Jessica Curtis said that even though there were parts of the book that made her uncomfortable, she appreciated the experience of being able to put herself in someone else’s shoes. She said that she thought the book review committee was very thorough, and she agreed with their recommendation to keep the book in the library.

Jen Dougherty said she was concerned that in the written formal complaint against the book, one of the objections that the parent had was with the author’s inclusion of discussions of “alternate gender identity and race.” Dougherty expressed that there are LGBTQ students and students of color in the Lowell district and that those students deserved representation. She also reminded everyone that this book was not assigned reading for any student’ it was a library book that a student would have to seek out to read.

Brian Krajewski thanked all of the members of the book review committee and thanked Media Specialist Christine Beachler and Principal Steve Gough for their time and effort. He said that Lowell is lucky to have a “top-rated, top-notch library system.”

School Psychologist Intern

On a different topics, VanderMeulen and Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki talked about part of the school’s budget from the state, a 31aa grant that was to be spent specifically on mental health services for the school. It was decided that a way to use this one-time grant might be to hire a psychologist intern who would help the two school psychologists already on staff.

The intern would be a doctoral-level student who is not yet certified to be a school psychologist in the state of Michigan but who needs practical experience in the field. The intern would be paid a starting teacher’s salary and their position would be for one year. The initial interviews for this position have already taken place, and the final interviews were scheduled for this past Tuesday.

Other Board Items

Fowler said that the construction at the middle school was going well and that the front of the school was beginning to take form. He added that the plan was for the cafeteria and auditorium to hopefully be open after spring break and that the STEM lab should be ready to go by the start of the school year in August. He said that the fabrication of the school entrance signs at the high school had been delayed, but he hoped that those might also be complete after spring break.

Chief Financial Officer, Sonia Hodge, said that the Michigan Department of Education would soon be releasing a COVID Grant Dashboard that would be made available to the public. The first phase of this would be a summary of how much money each district in Michigan has received in COVID grant money, how much they have spent and how much they have remaining. The second phase, due out in May, would include a details page where you will be able to see how each district is spending their grant dollars.

The calendar for the 2023-2024 school year was discussed, though no formal decisions were made. The board discussed a potential start of the school year date of August 22 and last day of school as May 31st. Fowler said he had received parent input regarding half days that he thought the board should consider: namely, that parents preferred whole days off vs half days.

The board went into closed session for labor negotiations and adjourned the open meeting at 7:19 pm. The next board meeting will be Monday, March 13, at 7 pm in the administration building.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 5:10pm on March 1, 2023 to provide more information regarding the reason for the book challenge.

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