The tension is palpable as the San Ramon Valley Unified School District board members prepare to discuss on Tuesday the controversial idea of banning books. As seen increasingly across the nation, certain books dealing with race and LGBTQ+ topics have sparked passionate debate among students, parents and community members.
During the meeting, parents will get the chance to learn more about the process of banning specific books. No vote is expected to take place.
A review of posts and comments in the two most popular San Ramon Unified Facebook parent groups suggest a large turnout is expected, with people showing up with posters for and against banning and with enlarged examples of what some consider to be “pornographic” images found in library books. Others have suggested reading specific passages from books aloud, as other parents have done so at meetings across the county to “shock” listeners.
“Parents are doing this because they are scared of the change between their generation and ours,” said Mitali Mittal, a senior at Dougherty Valley High School where Principal Evan Powell recently rejected an attempt to ban the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe from the school library.
Heightened interest in book banning began in early January after a video circulated online with unfounded claims that a San Ramon Valley High School teacher disciplined a student with a zero grade after the student refused to read “Gender Queer.” The school was not able to verify the claim and told this news organization no complaint has been filed. During the Jan. 17 school board meeting, at which some speakers discounted the claims in the video, the board decided to discuss the district’s policy on challenged books at its next meeting.
Some, like newcomer board member Jesse VanZee, have gone so far as communicating with parents outside his district to help facilitate the banning process at Dougherty Valley High School, according to a review of Facebook posts and comments on a popular parent group. VanZee refused to comment to what extent he participated in the book-banning proposal process, and what his motivation was to involve himself.
The board is also expected to discuss books such as “Push” and “Lawn Boy,” which some parents allege on social media contain “highly explicit sexual content involving incest and pedophilia.”
No book has ever been banned in the district, a spokesperson confirmed.
Book banning in California, as in other parts of the United States, is rare and often controversial. In general, California has a reputation for being progressive on free speech and individual rights, including the right to read and express oneself without censorship or government interference.
To some who spoke to this news organization, these books are much more than dust collectors on shelves.
A mother of a former California High School student relayed a story about how such a book helped her daughter. Years ago, sitting outside a Chipotle near the breezy shoreline of southwestern Connecticut, the gutsy then-10-year-old looked up from the table and blurted out a revelation that far too many consider too risky ever to tell a single soul.
“She told me, ‘Mom, I like girls!’ ”
The mother said in an interview that her immediate response was to hug her daughter and get her a book from Amazon on LGBTQ+ resources. “It made her feel very comforted,” the mother said of the book. The mother’s name is being withheld because she does not want her daughter identified.
“The thing about having LGBTQ kids is they don’t always feel safe being out in public,” said the mother, adding that in recent years the San Ramon Valley Unified community “has been a very unsafe space for LGBTQ+ families.”
When her daughter’s closest pal began dating a non-binary friend, she got them a copy of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. “Kids want to read about themselves; they want to be represented,” she said. “Everybody does.”
But now, the same book that helps teens learn about themselves and feel accepted, has come under attack by some San Ramon Valley Unified parents who want to see the book removed from the shelves of school libraries.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend among certain groups to try and ban books from schools, maintaining that they are inappropriate or offensive.
The most notorious example topping the list is “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” Recently subjected to endless attacks around the country and locally, it highlights a more significant trend in education of an ongoing culture war: representation and censorship of LGBTQ+ books, and the impact of fear-mongering and misinformation.
“I think it’s part of the general trend that we’re seeing nationwide, of just fear-mongering,” San Ramon Valley High School teacher Jennie Drummond, who identifies as queer, said in an interview. She added that “any attempt to ban queer literature especially affects transgender youth.”
According to a report by PEN America, during the 2021-22 school year, it saw a slow progression from modest school-level activity to challenge and remove books in schools into “a full-fledged social and political movement, powered by local, state, and national groups.” PEN American is a nonprofit that advocates for free expression in literature.
San Ramon Valley High School’s one copy of “Gender Queer” was placed in the library in October 2020 and has only been checked out twice, the district confirmed. “Gender Queer” is still available at many Bay Area school libraries, including high schools within the Oakland, Berkeley, and Fremont unified school districts. It is also in two other high schools within San Ramon Valley Unified, with one copy in each school’s library.
The calls to remove books with sexual orientation, gender identity, race and racism themes on a national level and from San Ramon Unified campuses have been a source of conflict for some time, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many parents and local groups became more active and vocal during school board meetings and in Facebook groups.
There have been other instances of book-banning attempts in the Bay Area. In November, Dougherty Valley High’s student newspaper, The Wildcat Tribune, reported that a parent had requested Rainbow Rowell’s “Carry On” be removed from the campus library. After Dougherty Valley Principal Evan Powell met with the complaining parent, it was decided that the book would remain in the library, California High School’s student newspaper reported.
The main character in “Carry On” is identified as queer, raising students’ questions about whether the book was targeted because of homophobia, the school paper reported.
California High School’s student newspaper also last year reported that two other books, “Melissa’s Story” by Alex Gino, and “57 Bus” by Dashka Slate, both of which included LGBTQ+ characters, were challenged by parents from Charlotte Wood Middle School. Neither attempt was successful.
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