Shawnee Heights school board votes against banning five challenged books

Board member invokes Bible verse to seek ouster of ‘Hate U Give’

By: - May 17, 2022 3:47 pm
The Shawnee Heights school board voted against requests to block student access to "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe and three other books subject to formal challenges on Tuesday. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

The Shawnee Heights school board voted against requests to block student access to “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and three other books subject to formal challenges on Tuesday. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Shawnee Heights school board voted to accept recommendations of a district review committee and continue making available to students five books targeted for removal by community members.

The books about racism, gender and personal relationships were brought into question because individuals outside the district, including a Republican state senator from Topeka, thought the content was inappropriate for students in the public school. Some of the books were on Shawnee Heights’ library shelves, while others were part of the district’s classroom curriculum.

Three of the five books challenged in Shawnee Heights were among the top 10 censored school books in the United States in 2021, according to the American Library Association’s office of intellectual freedom.

Shawnee Heights board member Christina Flaming took exception to “The Hate U Give,” the 2017 young adult novel by Angie Thomas inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old Black girl from a poor neighborhood who attended a predominantly white private school. The story involved Carter’s reaction to shooting of her childhood friend by a white police officer.

During the school board meeting Tuesday night, Flaming questioned legitimacy of the book’s depiction of a white officer shooting a Black boy. She said statistics proved there was more Black-on-Black violence than white-on-Black violence in the United States.

She also registered opposition to the book because the central character’s father failed as a role model. She said he didn’t possess family leadership skills necessary to move his wife and children to a more affluent neighborhood.

“I’m a biblical person. There’s a verse that talks about the dog returns to its vomit,” Flaming said. “To me, the overall theme was that dad could not leave the negative culture that he had in that neighborhood to get his family off to a better culture.”

The school board voted 6-1 to retain “Hate U Give” on the high school library’s shelf and to keep it as a reading option in a ninth-grade class.

Board member Jason Schulz defended retention of the book despite his personal challenge with the subject matter and a writing style that he viewed as harsh.

“It’s meant to make you think,” he said. “It’s meant to challenge what you think you know.”

In other action, the school board accepted the review committee’s recommendation to continue use in the district of “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.” The novel by Anastasia Higginbotham is about white supremacy in the United States.

The board unanimously agreed to keep on school shelves “Beyond the Gender Binary” written by Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender-nonconforming artist who defined gender as a malleable form of expression.

Board members likewise retained for student consumption “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George Johnson. This young-adult memoir weaved together disappointments and triumphs faced by Black queer boys.

Rocky Busenitz, the school board’s president, said he was convinced the district ought to place “All Boys Aren’t Blue” beyond reach of Shawnee Heights students. He lost the vote 5-2.

Busenitz said the initial 200 pages of Johnson’s book was well-written, but subsequent sections undermined the book by inappropriately addressing explicit touching, oral sex and pornography He was particularly disturbed by an example of sexting.

“That’s not an activity or behavior we want to model or encourage,” Busenitz said. “We have an issue with that already.”

The school board voted 4-3 to continue making available the autobiography “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” It’s a 2019 book by Maia Kobabe. The district’s review committee split three ways, with two members voting to retain it, two urging it be restricted to students in 11th grade or higher and two members proposing it be removed.

Only four students in the district have checked out Kobabe’s book since it was acquired by the district in November 2019.

In April, Kansas state Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Topeka, insisted the Shawnee Heights superintendent unilaterally block access to “Gender Queer.” Kloos, who operates a Topeka thrift store and church known as God’s Storehouse, said he prayed the district would promptly withdraw the book chronicling a journey of self-identity, adolescent crushes, coming out to family and bonding with friends over erotic fiction.

Flaming, a board member opposed to retention of “Gender Queer,” said exploration of intercourse, sodomy, masturbation and other behaviors could be a violation of state law given Shawnee Heights’ community standards of what defined as patently offensive. Busenitz, the school board’s president, agreed with her, because he considered graphic illustrations in the book were obscene.

“It just seems to me this pushes even our Kansas state law. With that in mind, I will say remove the book,” Flaming said.

School board member Lauren Tice Miller, a graduate of Shawnee Heights High School, said she was convinced the book had educational merit and would offer valuable information to students interested in the subject. She said it would be wrong to restrict access to students in 11th or 12th grades.

In the book, she said, the characters went to a library to seek answers to their questions. The Shawnee Heights library ought to be such a reservoir of insight, she said.

“I found it to be a very emotional read. This young woman went through a lot in trying to find herself,” Tice Miller said. “All I could think about was, I’m sure there’s at least one student who is having this struggle. If this becomes the first one that we move to the side and restrict to 11th and 12th graders only, where does it stop?”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.