By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
GREENVILLE — The Greenville school district continues to grapple with a controversy over the kinds of books that are available in the shared high school/middle school library.
The issue was first raised at the February meeting of the board of education and the rancor continued at the March meeting. The district was expected to continue discussions over developing a procedure for reviewing book acquisitions at the April 17 meeting.
Resident Amanda Calvo first sparked the controversy in February when she expressed anger that certain books were on school library shelves, including “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a young adult non-fiction memoir by author George M. Johnson, describing his experiences as a young, Black queer teenager.
The book has elicited controversy in several communities with its explicit depictions of sexual encounters and statutory rape.
Hudson Turon, an alumnus of the Greenville school system, said growing up in the community was not easy and that LGBTQ teens need to feel they are a part of the school and town.
“Being openly queer for half of my life in this space has been extremely difficult, waking up every morning feeling like you don’t belong in the town that you call home,” Turon said at the March meeting. “Wanting to hide myself, wanting to escape, wanting to leave — but I didn’t. I decided that my life and my happiness were way more important than what others made it out to be.”
Turon said it is important that LGBTQ teens feel welcomed and included, and part of that is being able to identify with characters in books and movies.
“Seeing yourself within media, within books, within movies, within TV shows is very, very important,” Turon said. “Monitoring what your child is looking up on the internet and what they are reading is the job of the parent. Just because you don’t agree with the content of a book, that doesn’t mean nobody should have access to it. If you have a problem with what books your child is taking out, let them know that they can’t read it. But to say that this literature doesn’t have any place within a school library, that is your opinion and opinions are not a fact.”
Alumna and former school district employee Melissa Gergen concurred.
“GCS’s secondary library is offering students the means to explore topics of consent, safer sex practices and even prepare them mentally and emotionally for possible situations they might find themselves in as they navigate their teenage lives and the relationships they choose to have as young adults,” Gergen said.
Not all students have a support system at home that is open and accepting, and the library can offer that support, she said.
“I simply ask that the Greenville librarians be allowed to order library books and materials in the same way employers are asked not to discriminate against future employees, not basing decisions on a book’s worthiness simply on the subjects of race, a character’s color, gender identity, sexual orientation or nation of origin, but rather on their literary merit and the needs of the patrons,” Gergen said. “Books offer windows into a world our students have questions about and we should not work to sanitize or limit access based on the fact that such books make some people uncomfortable.”
But Calvo said the controversy is not over the issue of LGBTQ, but rather the content of the books in question, and that her concerns span books that are also explicit about heterosexual activities, such as “50 Shades of Grey,” by author E.L. James.
“Everybody has the right to write what they want and everybody has the right to read what they want. What I am saying is that as a parent, I gave you my children to educate them. I didn’t ask you to teach them how to insert birth control or how to have sex,” Calvo said. “I didn’t ask you to give them any of that.”
She urged the board to implement a policy that certain books must have parental permission before students can check them out.
“It has no place in the school. Sexual literature — not LGBTQ literature — please understand that very clearly,” she said. “You don’t have the right to put things in front of my children that I don’t agree with.”
“You can’t even teach our children academically and you want to talk to them about sex? You’ve got no right,” Calvo continued. “I don’t care if it’s gay sex, I don’t care if it’s boy-on-girl sex. I don’t care what kind of sex — you don’t have the right to put the material in the school. It’s an infringement on the parent’s rights and you’re infringing on other students’ rights who feel uncomfortable with it.”
Resident Rachel deLong, M.D. said she is a public health physician and disagrees with the banning of books and said making the material accessible to young people is important.
“Banning books is censorship and it violates our constitutional right to free speech and it deprives our students of their right to receive information and to explore ideas,” deLong said. “That doesn’t take away from the fact that some individuals and families, maybe many individuals and families in our shared community, might feel very strongly that they don’t like the content of certain books that may be against their personal beliefs or moral beliefs or religious or political values, and they have the right to make that choice and to talk with their children about it, but they absolutely do not have the right to determine what my child is able to learn and explore and read, or to determine what other people’s children can learn or explore or read — that is our right, and they simply do not have the right to take that away.”
LGBTQ teenagers have significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than their cisgender heterosexual peers, and having an inclusive and accessible library of books that deals with issues relatable to them is important, deLong said.
“As a public health physician, I believe that books that address sexuality and sexual activity are necessary; they do belong in our library,” deLong said.
Resident Kellie Wolf said that if the district is going to be “inclusive,” that standard must be applied equally.
“You opened the door — now we’ve got to include everybody,” Wolf said. “In your library catalog right now, there’s nothing for a Christian believer. There’s no Bible. There’s great young adult series for this age — middle school, high school — to help these kids feel like they do belong, kids that feel lost. There’s actually a series about that, but it’s not here.”
Wolf also called for parents to be more involved in determining what books are accessible to their children.
District officials have been working with the library specialists to come up with a procedure for book acquisitions, and once that policy has been finalized it will be put to the board of education for approval, District Superintendent Michael Bennett said at the March meeting.