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

Last fall, at school board meetings across the country, parents upset about COVID-19 precautions began talking 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 it is also calling police and at a local high school in the Wentzville School District, after receiving angry voicemails, a police officer responded. He went to the library to tell the librarian about the books in his collection after callers accused her of giving pornography to children. This happened not once, but twice during the 2021-22 school year.

Although the visits did not result in any action against the librarian or removal of materials from the collection, the police officer’s presence highlights potential issues under a new Missouri law that makes it a crime to give sexually explicit material to minors. The law is a new tool for parents who want the support of law enforcement in their fight to force schools to teach what they deem appropriate. In the Wentzville district alone, the law resulted in the removal of more than 200 books from shelves for review.

The encounters between the librarian and the officer also illustrate how police and prosecutors can be ill-equipped or unwilling to respond to complaints about what amounts to subjective law, and how that means the law’s impact will reverberate. on individual situations.

Two police visits

O’Fallon Police Department shift commander Jeffrey Cook said Officer Scott Young, who worked at Liberty High School, went to speak to the librarian in separate incidents months apart after he received voicemails from parents complaining about books in the library.

“His follow-up with the school librarian was for his own understanding of what the books were that the parents were complaining about,” Cook told St. Louis Public Radio in an email. “This was not a police matter at the time and it is not a matter our department intends 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 felt the encounters differently. She didn’t want to be named for this story because she’s worried about her safety. Throughout the past school year, angry parents have shown up at board meetings, filed formal demands challenging books and records, and done what they can to force the district to follow through. their wishes.

The librarian told St. Louis Public Radio that while discussions with Young were casual, it was ‘frightening’ and ‘surreal’ for a police officer to enter her library because someone accused her of giving away pornography. to children.

The O’Fallon Police Department took no further action and did not file a 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 become involved in cases that touch on this issue, primarily because the issue is subjective in nature, and we are not in the business of suing school districts.

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

Instead, the public information officer in Lohmar’s office sent out a statement suggesting he could review the cases under this new law. The spokesperson said the office would review a case individually if law enforcement brings one.

“As with any alleged violation of criminal law, we can only respond to cases that are formally brought to us by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” the statement said. “When this happens, we look at each case on its own merits. It is almost impossible to establish clear internal policies and rules until we look at the facts of each case and apply those facts to the laws in question.

Brian Munoz

/

St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri State Capitol on Wednesday morning.

Missouri’s New Law

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

There was already a Missouri law prohibiting providing pornography to minors, but this law specifically criminalizes this issue in schools.

Since the law was approved, librarians in Missouri have been going through books page by page, looking for anything that could get them in trouble. In the St. Louis area this school year, at least seven school districts have cut nearly 40 titles so far. The majority are graphic novels or comics, as the law is all about visuals.

Other school districts said they are still evaluating the law to see if anything should be removed from library shelves. In the Wentzville School District, an internal listing shows more than 200 books have been temporarily removed for further review due to the new law.

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

While many districts received formal requests to remove books last year, most districts ultimately did not remove any records. Some local school boards have gone further by voting to keep the books on library shelves.

But the Wentzville School District removed several titles last year, either temporarily or permanently. It was enough for the ACLU of Missouri to sue the neighborhood on behalf of students about the book deletions, claiming they violated students’ First Amendment rights. A judge recently declined a request to temporarily suspend Wentzville’s book removal policy.

In a statement, the ACLU of Missouri said school districts should not preemptively remove the books due to Missouri’s new law.

“The new law narrowly defines ‘explicit sexual material’ and includes broad exceptions that require the materials to be considered as a whole,” wrote Tom Bastian, deputy director of communications for the ACLU of Missouri. “Furthermore, it does not criminalize materials that are currently in school libraries because school districts already follow well-established national standards for selecting appropriate materials.”

Librarians said they still feel confused about what materials are covered by the law and worried about its implications, according to Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians.

“We stand for intellectual freedom,” Corey said. “We defend the freedom to read.”

The law exempts scientific or anthropological depictions of sex-related material. And not all school districts have used book raffles. Maplewood Richmond Heights School District and St. Louis Public Schools said they did not pull any books.

“We’re not censoring anything at this point,” Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Bonita Jamison said. “We don’t change what we do for children because we know what they need. They come out in a diverse society.

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

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

Brian Munoz

/

St. Louis Public Radio

identity books

According to an analysis of titles, books about or written by LGBTQ people or people of color make up more than half of the books school districts have pulled from shelves. Many are about people coming to terms with their identity. Proponents of the new law denied that their movement was targeting specific groups.

“I don’t care about gender identity or sexual orientation,” Andy Wells said. “For me, that’s not a factor.”

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

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

Brattin said parents were furious about the issue and it led them to support “school choice,” the political movement to divert funding from public schools to other school options.

“That’s why you see such a movement of parents who want school choice and want to allow them to be able to take their money that they pay in taxes so they can go somewhere else when this kind of nonsense happens in the school system. public.” Brattin said. “…I think the best way to raise the bar is to have a mass exodus of people leaving these school districts that are doing this stuff.”

Wells spoke with Brattin about the new law before it was passed. Next, he wants the Missouri legislature to go beyond just visuals, with a law against written text that he thinks is self-explanatory.

“This is the first, I hope, of new legislation that will take graphic information out of 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 including St. Louis Public RadioKCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.

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

About Charles D. Goolsby

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