Sunday, September 24

Wentzville School Board reverses its decision on banned book

WENTZVILLE — A banned book again will be available to high school students here after the Wentzville School Board reversed its decision in the face of criticism and a class-action lawsuit.

The board voted 5-2 on Friday to rescind its earlier decision to ban Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” The board then voted 5-1, with one member abstaining, to accept a review committee’s recommendation to retain the book, which had been challenged by a parent.

“‘The Bluest Eye’ doesn’t offer anything to our children,” argued board member Sandy Garber. She had been a leading critic of the Morrison book, despite a review committee’s recommendation to retain it.

The board vice president, Daniel Brice, said the district should “tighten its policies” regarding some books, but he pointed out that parents already had the right to request certain titles not be available to their children. Brice said the meeting Friday was only to reconsider the decision on the ban. No specific details were given for the reconsideration.

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The district made national news last month when the board voted 4-3 to removed “The Bluest Eye” from its high school libraries. Its action was part of a recent wave of book challenges and bans across the United States.

On Friday, three state lawmakers encouraged the School Board to stand fast by its decision to ban the book, including going to court if necessary.

“We strongly urge you to stand strong in your advocacy and care for our children, and to defend your decision by any means necessary, including legal means,” says the letter dated Feb. 25. It is signed by state legislators Sen. Bob Onder, Lake Saint Louis; Rep. Nick Schroer, St. Charles County; and Rep. Richard West, Wentzville.

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Last month, the local backlash against the Wentzville ban was swift, with critics saying book bans violate First Amendment rights. Most professional library associations say that parents of minors may control their own children’s reading material but that they should not make specific books unavailable to other families.

The Missouri Library Association emailed a letter critical of the ban to the president of the Wentzville School Board. It said, in part: “We encourage you to reexamine the depth of your commitment to education in the truest sense, and to find your courage in the face of baseless political grandstanding at the expense of educators and students in your district.”

Two students, represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, filed a class-action lawsuit Feb. 15 against the district. The students are identified as C.K.-W. and D.L. in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says removing books threatens the students’ abilities “to learn and engage with a diversity of ideas and information, including seeing their own experiences reflected in the books and developing greater understanding of the experiences of others.”

On Friday, the ACLU said the suit was still active, and reacted to the ban reversal in a news release:

“This is welcome news, but the fact remains that six books are still banned. And Wentzville’s policies still make it easy for any community member to force any book from the shelves even when they shamelessly target books by and about communities of color, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups,” stated Anthony Rothert, director of integrated advocacy of ACLU of Missouri. “Access to The Bluest Eye was taken from students for three months just because a community member did not think they should have access to Toni Morrison’s story.”

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The Wentzville School District has received challenges against at least four other titles: “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, “Heavy” by Kiese Laymon and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

The titles have been removed from school libraries. Challenges against two other books, “Invisible Girl” and “Modern Romance,” have been withdrawn, said district spokeswoman Brynne Cramer. Those two also were mentioned in the ACLU lawsuit.

After the lawsuit was filed, the School Board unanimously approved the recommendation of the district’s book challenge committee to retain “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces” by Isabel Quintero. The book, a coming-of-age story of a Mexican-American teenager, had been challenged for foul language and depiction of rape.

Recent book challenges primarily target books written by Black and/or LGBTQ authors. The challenges often object to content about sex or sexual abuse or claim the book is obscene.

Since the Wentzville ban, local booksellers have seen increased orders for “The Bluest Eye,” a 51-year-old title by one of just three U.S. women to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

The Left Bank Books Foundation, the nonprofit connected to Left Bank Books bookstore in the Central West End, began its Literacy & Justice Project in response to the Wentzville ban. Within a month it had raised more than $10,000 in donations to provide free banned books to anyone who sought one through the project’s website.

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