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Mentor school board narrowly rejects ban of 2 books

A screenshot of the livestream of the March 12, 2024 Mentor Public Schools Board of Education meeting, where parents, residents and board members discussed challenges to two books over a five-hour meeting.
Mentor Public Schools
A screenshot of the livestream of the March 12, 2024 Mentor Public Schools Board of Education meeting, where parents, residents and board members discussed challenges to two books over a five-hour meeting.

Mentor Public Schools’ Board of Education narrowly rejected two challenges to books during a public meeting Tuesday night, 3-2, after an hours-long meeting filled with lengthy debate between board members and impassioned comments from the public.

The books being challenged were the nonfiction picture book “Right Now!: Real Kids Speaking Up for Change” and a young adult fantasy novel, “Empire of Storms.” The district says it has received multiple challenges to books deemed controversial by some parents and local residents in recent years. Roughly an hour and a half of the meeting was taken up by public comment, with audience members at times heckling each other. One woman interrupted the meeting after the board rejected the challenge to the "Right Now!" book, shouting at them, calling them “perverts."

The “Right Now!” book features short profiles of young people involved in activism, including climate activist Greta Thunberg and transgender activist Jazz Jennings and is meant for grades preschool through three according to its Amazon page. The book is available at Mentor schools to elementary school students. “Empire of Storms” is a book in the “Throne of Glass” series, meant for grade levels 10 through 12 according to its Amazon page and is available in the high school library.

Superintendent Craig Heath had elected to keep both books in the library after they were challenged by local residents. The district has a policy of allowing people to appeal that decision through the board.

Commenters who were opposed to students having access to the books objected during the meeting to several sex scenes in the “Empire of Storms” book and content about climate change and transgender people in the “Right Now!” book.

Jacqueline McCormick, who wore a Moms for Liberty t-shirt, said during her comments that the district is “indoctrinating” young students by allowing the "Right Now!" to remain on shelves. Moms for Liberty is a national political group identified as an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center which has been advocating for book bans and restrictions on teachings about race, gender and sexuality.

It's no surprise that another book, pushing political ideology, is put in the hands of elementary students and recommended by the woke superintendent to stay every month,” she said. “Your board meetings are like an ad for homeschooling and private schooling, as you all debate what is and is not appropriate for minor students."

She said the board can expect a “very big anti-levy campaign” in the future if the district continues to allow student access to books like the two being challenged.

Local resident Mike Williams said the "Right Now!" book highlighting the story of transgender activist Jazz Jennings means the district is promoting "lies" to children.

"The book also glorifies trans activist Jazz Jennings," he said. "According to this book, doctors thought she, in quotes, was a male at birth," he said. "But then she said she was a girl. Are you really going to tell us that our children, our children and our doctors can't tell the difference between male and female at birth?"

A Mentor schools' freshman who identified themselves as Brady spoke out against any move to ban books, especially “Right Now!: Real Kids Speaking Up for Change.”

“I stand in front of the school board as one of the few out trans kids in this district,” Brady said. “I'm real. My existence is not up for debate, but I find myself having to come here for several years now to let you know we are here, we exist, and we aren't going anywhere. There aren't two sides to this conversation. Trans people are real and average in your everyday life.”

Two board members, Annie Payne and Rose Ioppolo who both voted to remove both of the challenged books, posted to the Mentor Board of Education Facebook page asking people to turn out to the board meetings to speak in favor of the books being removed.

Lyndsie Wall, who was a candidate for the board of education last year, asked why they had done so. She said the libraries should be for “all” students.

“There's two board members and a church in Willoughby that found these books so horrible and awful and inappropriate that they felt the need to put out press releases and canvass our entire Mentor school district with fliers,” she said. “And alert the public that there were inappropriate books being handed out to minors. Did the challengers read these books in full?”

Payne argued that the “Right Now!” book is “ideologically biased” and “not age appropriate.” She said many parents, teachers and community members have real concerns about the content in books available to students, concerns which have been dismissed.

"I couldn't imagine my seven-year-old daughter reading about the Taliban and how a child was shot, and it not negatively affecting her," she said, referencing Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai's story. "This could cause children's grave mental distress."

Ioppolo agreed, noting 75 people signed onto the challenge for that book. She said she believes the book violates the district’s library policies because there aren’t any books providing “opposing viewpoints” to those included in the book. She said she valued the insights from the young activists in the book but said statements in the book could cause distress among younger readers. She cited a quote from activist Greta Thunberg in the book saying, "Our world is dying. Our future is dying"

"Kids are gullible. They believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. We know this about our kids, okay? And we're exposing them to this, thinking that it's not going to influence them," she said.

Board Member Lauren Marchaza argued the district should not be wasting so much time on reviewing individual book challenges. She said it's served as a "wedge" in the community, and said she worried about parents losing access to a wide variety of perspectives.

“It’s really quite simple for me, I agree every parent has the right to decide what their child reads and has access to, which is why I can’t support removing this book because that denies the access for other parents and their children,” she said. “So for me that doesn’t quite work.”

Board Member Virginia Jeschelnig said she agreed that parents do have the right to determine what content their kids are reading. She said the district could move to change its current policy of providing parents notice after a book is checked out – a system parents must opt into or out of - to provide a notice before a book is checked out. She also noted that of the two books being challenged, "Empire of Storms" has only been checked out five times in the last seven years, and "Right Now!" has only been checked out twice.

On the "Empire of Storms" front, Payne said books depicting explicit sexual acts could cause problems for students with PTSD as a result of being victims of sexual violence. Ioppolo also added that the districts' policies are lax with regard to allowing students to check out books when it comes to sexually explicit content, arguing the local public library's policies on checking out explicit books are stricter than the school district's, requiring parents to be present to show their ID for kids to get a "special library card" to check out such books. She read passages from the book which included descriptions of sex and said there's no "academic literary value" in the book.

"If these books were turned into movies, they would most likely be rated R," she said.

Marchaza and Jeschelnig both raised concerns about the board making the move to ban access to the book without having read it fully; Jeschelnig noted Superintendent Heath was the only one who had read the 689-page book. Heath said the sex scenes were only in roughly four pages of the book.

Both Payne and Ioppolo both argued the district should remove all books with sexually explicit content in them from school libraries, adding that more than 25 such books have been flagged.

Board Chair Maggie Cook noted that it will be costly, and the district could be vulnerable to lawsuits if it were to review and flag all books with sexually explicit or otherwise objectionable content. She proposed the district consider a whole new policy to change school library access with three tiers: the first would allow students full access to the libraries, the second would be akin to the current system which provides access to students but notifies parents when they check out a book and the third tier would mean students can only access books with parental permission first.

"I think it was last week that Mr. Heath was given a list of 47 books to review, and he took time to look at 47 books, this is not the way I think our superintendent should be spending his time," she said.

Ioppolo and Payne said they would be open to the new system proposed by Cook. The board will discuss the new policy in the coming weeks.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.