Banned book controversy discussed by school committee

Oct 19, 2022

Parents, students and members of the community packed the media room at Old Rochester Junior High School on Wednesday, Oct. 19 to speak out against potentially banning certain books from school libraries.

The books came under review after complaints were filed about them, said Superintendent Mike Nelson. The complaints were later withdrawn. 

According to 17-year-old Alia Cusolito, a junior at ORR, the books are: "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, "Beyond Magenta" by Susan Kuklin, "Flamer" by Mike Curato, "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison, "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, and "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas.

Rhonda Baptiste, a parent of a 7th grader and member of the local group Tri-Town Against Racism, read a letter addressed to the Old Rochester Regional School Committee. She asked those who signed the letter to stand, and almost everyone in the room rose from their seats with her.

“We ask the Old Rochester School District School Committee Members and those in power to reject these divisive, hate-mongering attempts to limit whose stories are worth telling,” she read.

Committee member Joseph Pires addressed his stance on the issue, saying that he is “in favor in removing sexual or explicit content” from reading material in schools.

“Content such as this is, in my opinion, child abuse,” he said, referring to the books under discussion as “vile material.”

Pires is the subject of a complaint by Baptiste claiming he violated open meeting laws by posting about the topic on Facebook.

Open meeting law in Massachusetts states that board members cannot deliberate on a subject under their jurisdiction outside of a public meeting.

Pires stated that his intention was “simply to create awareness” by sharing an article about the potential book ban by The Standard-Times in a local Facebook group.

“This complaint toward myself for violating open meeting law has no merit or basis,” he said.

“Banning was never suggested,” said Ann Fernandes, a member of the Rochester School Committee, regarding the complaints about the books. “We just need to look at them.”

Fernandes is also the subject of public complaints due to posting about the topic on Facebook, she said, but did not specify what she had posted.

Other members of the community stood up to speak out against the possibility of banning books from the library.

“The bottom line is, those of us here who signed on to [the letter] are appalled and disgusted that we are talking about banning books that speak to the difference and commonalities in our community,” said Liz DeCarlo of Mattapoisett.

Randy Allain of Mattapoisett addressed the committee via Zoom, “I think we need to remember that when we are addressing the sexualized content of a book, we need to be aware of what the book is about.”

According to the school’s website, when complaints are issued about a book, it is the job of the Standards Committee to assess the books and vote. The Standards Committee consists of members of the school committee, the superintendent, the principal and assistant principal, any teacher using the material and the appropriate coordinator from the school district. 

As the complaints were withdrawn, no meeting of the Standards Committee has been scheduled. 

“We are aware that an individual recently filed, and later withdrew, a complaint about book selection in our school libraries,” said Superintendent Mike Nelson. “Let me just say that we require our librarians to keep up-to-date with state and federal education standards and guidelines. And while we are certainly aware that not all books are appropriate or age-appropriate for all schools, as your superintendent and as a leader in this school-system, I feel that the topic of library books is safest when it is left in the hands of librarians.”