EAST WHITELAND — After hearing passionate speakers from both sides, the West Chester Area School District school board voted 8-1 not to remove a pair of books dealing with gender identity from its high school libraries.
Monday night at the Spellman Building meeting room, applause was strong for both those speakers seeking to ban two books, and for those who chose to keep them in the schools.
During the four-hour meeting, applause was most sustained by East High School freshman Wesley Hiester, who told those of approximately 150 in attendance, and board members, district staff and its superintendent, that reading one of the attacked books had saved their life.
Hiester identifies as a transgender teen and noted high rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ students. “Let the fact that you want to ban a book that could save those lives sink in,” said Hiester, adding that without parental support, “this book,” and the ability to play on the boys’ tennis team, “I might not be here today.”
Prior to the nearly unanimous vote, more than half of 16 public speakers spoke in favor of retaining Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and Emily Rose Oachs’ “Escaping a Sinking Ship” within the district’s libraries. Questions were recently raised about the books during school board meetings regarding content, a photograph and drawings. Separate book review committees met and then suggested keeping the two books on the school library shelves.
Committees consist of at least one parent or guardian, community member, student, principal, supervisor, teacher, librarian, along with a board member and a superintendent designee.
A recent trend to remove and ban books from schools is again gaining popularity, including in several Chester County school districts.
Just prior to the vote, Superintendent Bob Sokolowski asked two high school student representatives if he could move from his regular seat and sit with them from where he delivered an impassioned plea to retain the books. The former Latin and Greek teacher said that he believes in freedom of speech.
He said that the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” is a mosaic that could lead students to understand their sexuality and orientation. He said the book is “incredibly supportive and incredibly empathetic to developing understanding.”
School Board President Sue Tiernan seemed pleased with the turnout that included many students.
“We see you and we can hear you,” she said.
Board member Daryl Durnell identified himself as a gay Christian and spoke about “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”
“It’s one person’s story that might not resonate with everyone, but for a few it could be life changing,” Durnell said. “It’s life affirming and lifesaving … for the student who seeks it out, it offers positive support.”
Board member Laura Detre said “Gender Queer: A Memoir” keeps people from feeling pain.
Board member Joyce Chester said she learned many things from the book.
“It inspires our children to be their personal best,” Chester said. “I am committed to our district’s mission and that means supporting all of our children.”
“We have to be brave too and we need to keep these books available to people who can learn from them,” Tiernan said.
Board member Gary Bevilacqua also voted to retain the books, while board member Stacey Whomsley was the sole ‘nay’ voter for what she said was a process and procedure issue following cancellation of the most recent Education Committee meeting. She said the vote should have been postponed until the Education Committee could meet.
Karen Herrmann, board member, said that an awareness develops when the author tells the story, while noting that “Gender Queer” is available in the school library, but is not required classroom reading.
“It was a life story,” she said. “No one is forced to read this.
“There are many challenges in life. There are many struggles in life, and I believe this book can help.”
Board member Karen Fleming said that a couple of the graphics in the novel “Gender Queer” might be taken out of context.
Amy Ficarra, a West Goshen resident, said that a parent needs to deem what is appropriate for one’s own children.
“Better, more appropriate materials exist,” she said.
There are better ways to educate young and not fully developed minds, she said.
Donna Faunce, of East Goshen said that while the book is written in comic book style, “there is nothing comic about it.”
Nancy Wood, of East Bradford, said the book is not pornography, but rather the issue is about excluding students that fall into a minority.
“We wanted to have robust conversations that fully examined the challenges, appropriateness, and artistic quality of these books as well as their ability to provide value and information,” Kalia Reynolds, assistant superintendent said.
“Decisions such as these are not made lightly, and, on behalf of the school board, I want to thank both Book Review Committees for their serious dedication to examining these titles and the subject matter they present to our students,” said board member Kate Shaw, who chairs the board’s Education Committee. “While not all members of our community will agree with the outcome, our policies and the thorough and thoughtful recommendations that have been presented to the board for review guide us in making these decisions.”
The following was included in the Tuesday release: “Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir,’ a personal narrative … offers a true account of navigating self- and gender identity as well as sexual orientation. This Stonewall Award Honoree and American Library Association’s Alex award-winning title includes sexual content as part of its exploration of nonbinary gender identity.
“Kobabe has noted that the book was written to help those struggling with their own identity through its unique perspective and support.”
The release continues: “Oachs’ ‘Escaping a Sinking Ship,’ an elementary-level chapter book, shares the stories of ships that have sunk throughout history. The fourth chapter of the book examines the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, who sunk while carrying German citizens and soldiers who were fleeing the country to escape Soviet forces in 1945.
“The ship, which was named after a Nazi leader, was at one time used as a luxury vessel and barracks for Nazi soldiers but was later altered for use as a means of evacuation for German citizens. The book offers an examination of this historical event and loss of lives aboard the ship.
“As is its policy, the West Chester Area School District will continue to work with parents, guardians, and members of the community to address concerns regarding books while also maintaining access to materials that provide information and greater understanding for our students,” reads the release.
Sokolowski wants to ensure that all students feel welcome.
“This process has certainly been challenging and it has brought up many strong feelings in our community, but as I look for the opportunities that challenges often present, I think that this experience has shed more light on the difficult experiences our LGBTQ+ students face and shown the need for continued support,” he said. “We want to ensure that all of our students feel welcome in our schools and know that they are valued for who they are. We will continue to work toward this goal each day.”