Guilford Schools Hear Complaints Regarding 5 Public School Library Books


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GUILFORD — The Board of Education was given summer reading by Superintendent Paul Freeman after a former candidate to the board submitted formal complaints challenging the availability of five books in Guilford public school libraries.

Freeman notified the board about the complaints during the Board of Education meeting on June 12.

“I will schedule an opportunity for the board to discuss and dispose of these at your September meeting,” Freeman said. “That will give the board members the summer to review and familiarize yourselves with all five titles. It’ll give me time to speak with the appropriate professional staff who were involved in selecting those titles. I can give the rationale and explanation as to the books’ presence in our library or our curriculum.”

Danielle Scarpellino, a former Republican candidate for Board of Education, filed five separate requests for reconsideration of educational materials, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The five books under review are:

Flamer by Mike Curato, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel published in 2020 about a 14-year-old gay Filipino boy who struggles with being bullied by racists, and for being overweight and gay. He is also trying to navigate the conflict between his sexuality and his Catholic upbringing. Freeman said the book is currently available at the Guilford High School Library. Scarpellino said in her request that the book might result in “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually explicit material.”

Excerpted from the complaint directed at the book Flamer

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a semi-autobiographical novel published in 2018 about a gay Mexican American boy struggling with the American Dream. It is also currently available at the Guilford High School Library, Freeman said. Scarpellino said the book might result in the “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually graphic material between children.”

Excerpted from the complaint directed at the book Lawn Boy

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris. Originally published in 1994, It’s Perfectly Normal is an illustrated sex education book with a cartoon bird and bee discussing and depicting the human body, puberty, sex and masturbation, abstinence and contraceptives, and sexually transmitted infections. In 2014, the book was expanded to include discussion on differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and discussing terms like transgender. The book is currently available at the Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, Freeman said. Scarpellino said the book might result in the “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually graphic material of children.”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews is a 2012 novel about a high school boy who is encouraged by his mother to show support to a fellow schoolmate who is diagnosed with leukemia and the emotional fallout of his efforts to honor the girl. Freeman said Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is also available at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School. Scarpellino said that the book might result in the “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually explicit material.”

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, published in 1970, is about a black girl who perceives herself as ugly after extensive racial abuse, as well as abuses by her father, who rapes her twice. She wishes she had blue eyes with the belief that she’d be more beautiful. The Bluest Eye has been taught in high school AP English, Freeman said. Scarpellino said the book might result in “unwanted accidental exposure to sexually explicit material,” specifically the “rape of a child by her father.”

At the top of each request, Scarpellino wrote, “This is not a request to ban books.”

In all five requests Scarpellino recommended that parents should determine what age group these five books should be recommended for and asked for the board to go on record regarding the appropriateness of the books for children.

Scarpellino stood to address the board three times at the June 12 meeting, once during the public forum portion, when each speaker allotted three minutes, and twice during the public questions portion when speakers are given four minutes.

She spoke against banning books, pointing out that seven Dr. Seuss books were removed from circulation at Melissa Jones Elementary School in 2021, coinciding with a national public outcry directed against racial depictions in the books.

Scarpellino told board members that “book banning is the most widespread form of censorship in the United States, in which children’s literature is the primary target. Censorship violates First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.” She also quoted statements by Freeman and Balestracci expressing reticence in having Guilford Public Schools being a place where books are banned.

“This seems in stark contrast to what happened in 2021,” Scarpellino said. “This looks like censorship, which is in violation of the First Amendment.”

In response to Scarpellino, Balestracci said that the Dr. Seuss books were removed from Melissa Jones Elementary School at the discretion of the librarian, not the board, and that the books are available at the other elementary schools.

“Each of our librarians are tasked with making a whole host of decisions around circulation and I did not feel any reason for a public discussion about it because no violation had occurred,” Balestracci said. “Books are removed every day, or every week, or every year by librarians who are assessing their collections. They’re bringing new books in, they’re looking at circulation numbers, they’re considering what their students are reading.”

She said the decision belongs to the professional librarians on staff and the board doesn’t micromanage those decisions.

“This was no systematic attempt to make any decision that way,” she said. “Individual librarians are making those choices.”

Scarpellino read from one of the Dr. Seuss books removed the elementary school library, quoting his depictions of East Asian people.

“I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant”

She then read text from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, of a conversation between two characters about giving oral sex to women, and then read text from The Bluest Eye depicting the rape of the book’s protagonist, Pecola, by her father.

Excerpted from the complaint directed at the book Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

“My point is, this is what you support,” Scarpellino said. “This was assigned and it is not mandated by AP. The teachers pick the books for AP courses. If you have integrity, you’ll understand why I’m here and why I’m fighting this behavior.”

Balestracci repeated to Scarpellino Freeman’s assurance that the board would review the books and closed the discussion.

On Friday, Balestracci said the board is not in a position to micromanage the decisions of librarians. 

“However if at any point it is brought to our attention that books are being removed in a way that requests additional review or suggest that any of our professionals might be making a decision that seems contrary to the appropriate decision making protocols then certainly we might want to understand and review that decision,” she said. “If decisions were made that seem to reflect working outside appropriate procedures for considering texts, we will look into that. Otherwise, we expect our professionals are making appropriate decisions.”

Excerpted from the complaint directed at the book It’s Perfectly Normal

Freeman said Friday that there’s no policy vehicle to challenge the lack of a book and there is no policy about books that aren’t in the library. 

Contacted on Monday, Nick Cusano, chair of the Republican Town Committee said he believed Scarpellino was making sure that parents have a say regarding appropriate content for their children.

“We fully support parents’ rights and discretion about media and things that are consumed by our children,” Cusano said. “It’s about parents’ rights. A lot of parents are disappointed and alarmed about the graphic content in these titles.”