Tension is palpable as San Ramon Valley Unified School District board members prepare to discuss the controversial idea of banning books on Tuesday. As seen more and more across the country, certain books on race and LGBTQ+ topics have sparked passionate debate among students, parents, and community members.
During the meeting, parents will have the opportunity to learn more about the process of banning specific books. No voting is expected.
A review of posts and comments in the two most popular San Ramon Unified Facebook parent groups suggests a large turnout is expected, with people showing up with pro and anti-ban posters and blow-ups of what some consider “pornographic” images found in library books. Others have suggested reading specific passages from books aloud, as other parents have done at rallies around the country to “shock” listeners.
“Parents do this because they fear 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 publish the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” by Maia Kobabe from the school library.
The heightened interest in banning books began in early January after a video circulated online containing unfounded claims that a San Ramon Valley High School teacher penalized a student with a zero after the student refused to read “Gender Queer.” The school was unable to verify the allegation and told this news organization that no complaint has been filed. At the January 17 school board meeting, at which some speakers dismissed the claims made in the video, the board decided to discuss the district’s policy regarding challenged books at the next meeting.
Some, like newcomer board member Jesse VanZee, have even gone so far as to communicate with parents outside his district to help ease the banning process at Dougherty Valley High School, according to a survey of Facebook posts and comments on a popular parent group. VanZee declined to comment on how much he participated in the book ban proposal process and what his motivation was for getting involved.
The board is also expected to discuss books like “Push” and “Lawn Boy,” which some parents say on social media contain “highly graphic sexual content involving incest and pedophilia.”
No book has ever been banned in the district, a spokesman confirmed.
Banning books in California, as in other parts of the United States, is rare and often controversial. Overall, California has a reputation for being progressive in freedom of 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 told a story about how such a book helped her daughter. Years ago, sitting outside a Chipotle near the windswept coastline of southwestern Connecticut, the plucky then-10-year-old looked up from the table and blurted out a revelation that far too many consider too risky to ever be given to a single soul. to tell.
“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 an Amazon book on LGBTQ+ resources. “It made her feel very reassured,” the mother said of the book. The mother’s name is withheld because she does not want her daughter to be identified.
“The problem with having LGBTQ kids is that they don’t always feel safe being out in public,” the mother said, adding that the San Ramon Valley Unified community has been “a very unsafe place in recent years.” for LGBTQ+ families.”
When her daughter’s best friend started dating a non-binary friend, she got a copy of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. “Children want to read about themselves; they want to be represented,” she said. “Everyone does.”
But now the same book that helps teens know themselves and feel accepted is under attack from some San Ramon Valley Unified parents who want the book removed from school library shelves.
In recent years there has been a growing trend among certain groups to try to ban books from schools, claiming they are inappropriate or offensive.
The most infamous example at the top of the list is “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” Recently subjected to endless attacks across the country and locally, it highlights a more important 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 we’re seeing across the country of fear-mongering,” Jennie Drummond, a San Ramon Valley High School teacher who identifies as queer, said in an interview. She added that “any effort to ban queer literature particularly affects transgender youth.”
According to a report by PEN America, during the 2021-22 school year, it saw a slow development from modest school-level activities to challenging and removing books in schools into “a full-fledged social and political movement driven by local, state, and national groups.” PEN American is a non-profit organization that advocates for free speech in literature.
San Ramon Valley High School’s only 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 in many Bay Area school libraries, including high schools in the united school districts of Oakland, Berkeley, and Fremont. It is also located in two other San Ramon Valley Unified high schools, with one copy in each school’s library.
The calls to remove books on topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, race and racism nationally and from San Ramon Unified campuses have long been a source of conflict, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many parents and local groups became more active and vocal at school board meetings and in Facebook groups.
There have been other instances of attempts to ban books in the Bay Area. In November, Dougherty Valley High’s student newspaper, The Wildcat Tribune, published reported that a parent had requested that 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, the California High School student newspaper reported.
The main character in “Carry On” is identified as queer, prompting students to question whether the book was targeted because of homophobia, the school paper reported.
Also last year’s California High School student newspaper reported that two other books, “Melissa’s Story” by Alex Gino and “57 Bus” by Dashka Slate, both of which contain LGBTQ+ characters, were challenged by parents at Charlotte Wood Middle School. Neither attempt was successful.