School librarian recalls ‘surreal’ police visits over books months before new Missouri law | KCUR 89.3


Last fall, at school board meetings across the country, parents who were upset about precautions surrounding COVID-19 began speaking out about another grievance — school library books. In the St. Louis area, groups of parents went to board meetings to read aloud passages they said were sexually explicit, calling the books “criminal.”

St. Louis Public Radio has now confirmed they also called the police, and at a local high school in the Wentzville School District, a police officer responded after receiving angry voicemails. He went to the library to speak to the librarian about the books in her collection after callers accused her of giving pornography to children. This happened not just once, but twice in the 2021-22 school year.

While the visits did not result in any action being taken against the librarian or the removal of any materials from the collection, the police officer’s presence underscores the potential risks of new Missouri law making it a crime to provide sexually explicit material to minors. The law is a new tool for parents who want law enforcement’s support in their fight to force schools to teach what they think is appropriate. In the District of Wentzville alone, the law has resulted in more than 200 books being pulled from shelves for review.

The encounters between the librarian and the officer also show how ill-equipped or reluctant police and prosecutors can be to respond to complaints about what constitutes a subjective law and how this means that the effects of the law are due to individual situations.

Two police visits

O’Fallon Police Department watch commander Jeffrey Cook said officer Scott Young, who worked at Liberty High School, was separated in months to speak with the librarian after receiving voicemails from parents discussing books had complained to the library.

“His follow-up with the school librarian was for his own understanding of the books the parents were complaining about,” Cook told St. Louis Public Radio in an email. “This was not a police matter at the time and is not an issue our department wants to get involved in.”

Wentzville School District spokeswoman Brynne Cramer described the visits as “informal conversations” between two colleagues. Young is a resource officer employed by both the O’Fallon Police Department and the Wentzville School District.

But the librarian experienced the encounters differently. She did not want to be named for this story because she is concerned for her safety. During the final year of school, disgruntled parents showed up at board meetings, made official book challenges and requests for records, and did what they could to force the district to comply with their wishes.

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The librarian told St. Louis Public Radio that while conversations with Young were casual, it felt “scary” and “surreal” to see a police officer come into her library because someone was accusing her of giving pornography to children.

The O’Fallon Police Department took no further action and made no report. The department said that going forward, the school district will handle complaints about library books.

Cook also sent a statement from St. Charles District Attorney Tim Lohmar, who said: “Law enforcement and prosecutors are unlikely to interfere in cases touching on this issue, primarily because the matter is subjective in nature, and we are not in the business of filing lawsuits against school districts.”

When asked about this quote, Lohmar’s office said it was shared without permission.

Instead, Lohmar’s office public relations officer sent a statement proposing that cases be considered under the new law. The spokesman said the office will review a case on an individual basis if law enforcement directs one to do so.

“As with any suspected violation of criminal law, we can only respond to cases that are officially presented to us by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” the statement said. “If that happens, we will examine each case individually. It is almost impossible to establish internal guidelines and clear rules until we have examined the facts of each case and applied those facts to the relevant laws.”

The Missouri State Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Brian Munoz

/

Public Radio St. Louis

The Missouri State Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Missouri’s new law

The new Missouri law makes it illegal to provide students with visual representations of things considered sexually explicit, including genitals and sexual acts. The law went into effect almost a year after the official’s first visit. Teachers, librarians, or other school officials found guilty of violating the law could face up to a year in prison or a $2,000 fine.

There was already a law in Missouri against the provision of pornography to minors, but this law specifically criminalizes this problem in schools.

Since the law was passed, librarians across Missouri have been going through books page by page, looking for anything that might get them into trouble. In the St. Louis area, at least seven school districts have removed nearly 40 titles so far this school year. The majority are graphic novels or comics because the law focuses on visuals.

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Other school districts said they are still reviewing the law to determine if anything needs to be taken off library shelves. In the Wentzville School District, an internal list shows that more than 200 books have been temporarily removed for further review under the new law.

Some titles have been removed in multiple districts, including the graphic novel versions of The Handmaid’s Tale, Gender Queer, Flamer, and Watchmen. The Rockwood School District has 22 books removed, more than any other district that reported the removed materials.

While many districts received formal requests for book removals last year, most districts ultimately did not withdraw any materials. Some local school boards went further and voted to keep the books on library shelves.

But the Wentzville School District removed several titles either temporarily or permanently over the past year. It was enough that the Missouri ACLU sued the quarter on behalf of the students about the book removal, saying they violated the students’ First Amendment rights. a judge recently rejected an application Temporarily stopping Wentzville’s book removal policy.

In a statement, Missouri’s ACLU said school districts should not pre-emptively remove books because of Missouri’s new law.

“The new law narrowly defines ‘explicit sexual material’ and contains sweeping exceptions that require materials to be viewed as a whole,” wrote Tom Bastian, assistant director of communications for the Missouri ACLU. “Additionally, materials currently in school libraries will not be criminalized because school districts already follow nationally established standards for selecting appropriate materials.”

According to Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, librarians said they are still confused about what materials the law covers and worried about its impact.

“We stand for freedom of spirit,” Corey said. “We stand for the freedom of reading.”

The law exempts scientific or anthropological representations from gender-related material. And not all school districts resorted to book pulling. Both the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District and St. Louis Public Schools reported no books being drawn.

“We are not censoring anything at this time,” said Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Bonita Jamison. “We don’t change what we do for children because we know what they need. You go out into a diverse society.”

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Corey said school librarians are being trained to ensure their collections offer age-appropriate and relevant books that represent diverse viewpoints.

“Reading is the most important way to develop empathy for others,” Corey said. “We have published books by individuals that would not have been published even 20 to 30 years ago.”

Brian Munoz

/

Public Radio St. Louis

books about identity

According to an analysis of titles, books about or written by LGBTQ people or people of color account for more than half of the books pulled off school district shelves. Many are about people grappling with their identity. Supporters of the new law denied that their movement targeted specific groups.

“I’m not interested in sexual identity or sexual orientation,” Andy Wells said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Wells is president of the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a national group that has a rating system for books it deems inappropriate.

State Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said he proposed the law because “we definitely saw the need to protect the innocence of children.”

Brattin said parents were angry about this issue and that it prompted them to support “School Choice,” the political movement to redirect public school funding to other school options.

“That’s why you see such a movement of parents who want school choice and want to allow them to take the money that they pay in taxes to be able to go somewhere else when that kind of nonsense is happening in the public school system,” Brattin said. “…I think that’s the best way to really fix the ship when you’ve got a mass exodus of people moving out of these school districts that do stuff like that.”

Wells spoke to Brattin about the new law before it was passed. Next, he wants the Missouri Legislature to go beyond visual representation with a law against written text, which he believes is explicit.

“I hope this is the first of more legislation that will remove graphic information from the hands of children,” Wells said.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

This article was produced in partnership with The Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration that includes St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media, and NPR.

Copyright 2022 Public Radio St. Louis. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.





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