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Michigan school board hears prayers and explicit passages as book wars flare

The book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson sits in a windowsill, the cover showing a Black man posing with a bouquet of flowers on his head.

Conservative activists are asking the Michigan Board of Education to help keep sexually explicit books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” out of public schools.

Dan Lyon / Chalkbeat

Part prayer service, part sexually explicit read-aloud. 

That’s what Michigan Board of Education meetings sound like lately as they’ve become a battlefield for the latest culture war issue: restricting student access to books with sexual content.   

Parents have been bringing their concerns to the board during public comment sessions that sometimes last more than two hours. Their pleas are passionate, but they’re also misplaced.

The state Board of Education has no jurisdiction over local school libraries and no power to legislate. That hasn’t stopped parents and conservative activists from queuing up online and in person to have their say at the board’s monthly meetings in Lansing.

“Local superintendents and local school boards look up to the state board to see what their recommendations are, so if the state Board of Education can just affirm what we feel,” that would be helpful, said Bree Moeggenberg, a mother of three and chair of the Isabella County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative nonprofit that has fought school mask mandates and lessons about LGBT rights and critical race theory. 

Activists also have been taking their concerns to local school boards, where they’ve met some success, and to public libraries, seeking to defund them over objections to materials in their collections. Just this week, Dearborn Public Schools responded to parent complaints by removing seven library books that depict homosexuality, abuse, and rape.  

Advocates for free expression worry that complaints about sexually explicit material might be just the start for conservatives who may ultimately try to restrict access to other kinds of content that they deem objectionable. 

Book banning has a long history. In the 17th century, Puritans were burning copies of William Pynchon’s “The Meritorious Price of our Redemption.” Classics like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” often appear on banned-book lists because of racial slurs, foul language, violence, and references to drug use.

But banning activity has surged in recent months amid a growing conservative movement to control students’ exposure to lessons about racism, sexism, sexual orientation, and other sensitive topics in public schools. Data collected by PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression in literature, show that school districts across the country banned 1,145 books just between July 2021 and April 2022 — numbers not seen in decades.

In Michigan, growing numbers of parents and activists are showing up to state Board of Education meetings to advocate for stricter regulation of books. Some pray before their testimony. Others warn board members they will go to hell for not working to ban what they see as objectionable books from school libraries. Many dive right in, reading as quickly as they can from the most sexually explicit passages they’ve found in school library books before their three minutes run out and state board Executive Marilyn Schneider cuts them off.

“Dear Lord, I come to you this afternoon to ask you to protect these parents that speak today and are trying to protect their children against the devil that is hard at work,” one caller from Wayne County began on Tuesday. Twelve seconds later the caller, who identified herself only as Billie from Wayne County, read aloud an explicit passage about oral sex from “On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God,” which Publishers Weekly classifies as a children’s book. 

Board members listened to her and more than 30 other speakers Tuesday but did not respond. They typically refrain from responding during public comment sessions.  

Lately, most public comment sessions have been dominated by callers like Billie, but at Tuesday’s meeting, several people offered an alternative perspective. They said many of the books being challenged help readers see themselves in stories so they feel less alone in the world.

“They contain important messages,” Kat Draeger of Fenton, a fifth-year student at Michigan State University, testified on Tuesday. “They help people look at the world through a different lens.”

Reading about bullying, sexuality, and suicide, for example, can help students cope with circumstances they may find themselves in, she said.

She mentioned “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe — both among the books conservative activists are targeting because of their depictions of sexual assault and gender dysphoria. 

“Young people need to learn social skills to understand the world around them and how they fit into it,” Draeger said. “Developing good citizens and healthy people is the job of both Michigan educators and this board. Taking away the ability of young people to better understand the world and themselves should not be this board’s right or responsibility.”

Parents like Moeggenberg say it’s up to parents, not schools, to decide what books are appropriate for their children.

“Some of these books might benefit some students,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Who am I to say what works for somebody else? I would be a hypocrite if I said you had to do what I want and not what works for you.”

Moeggenberg said she would be satisfied if schools were required to notify parents before their children try to access books with sexually explicit content.

Other activists want to keep objectionable books out of schools entirely, though they still bristle at the word “ban.”

“No one is asking for books to be banned,” Jayme McElvany of Monroe told board members at Tuesday’s meeting. “That’s simply a way for you to ignore the fact that you are pushing sexually explicit material on children,” she said before reading book excerpts about anal sex, rape, and incest.

Lisa Querijero, a parent in Ann Arbor, says she trusts a school’s trained librarians to decide what books are appropriate for students.

“I’m here to counter and call out the small vocal minority that are attempting to compromise the integrity of our public schools and our democracy,” Querijero testified in Lansing on Tuesday. “Singling out and censoring books and curriculum is detrimental to creating critical thinkers. It is detrimental to teacher morale and the morale of the state of our public schools in general.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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