Johnson County school district keeps removing books after one mom keeps complaining

No one challenged any book in the Gardner Edgerton district for at least a decade — until this school year.

For the past several months, one mom has brought one complaint after another, 11 in all, about library books. In response, administrators have pulled seven. Another three are being reviewed by a district committee, which will later recommend to the school board whether to keep or pull them as well.

Of the 11 complaints, the details of which were obtained by The Star through a records request, so far only one book has been approved to stay.

Parent Carrie Schmidt argues the books she’s challenged include sexual content that amounts to pornography, as well as violence and discussions of self-harm and abuse inappropriate for students. One of the books is available in middle school libraries, while the others are at the high school.

“Thank you for taking out this thought-provoking and arousing, X-rated material out of our district,” Schmidt said at a board meeting last month. “I have another book that I have found in the library with sexual content, and I will send that to you this week. Taking a book out of a school library is not banning it. It is keeping the material available for our children age appropriate.”

As the books were removed, Gardner Edgerton High School’s longtime librarian resigned last month. She declined to speak with The Star.

The challenges have angered several parents and students, who believe one parent’s complaint should not infringe on their access to books, which trained library professionals deemed appropriate.

“I found my voice from people in books that represented me. Reading shaped me as a person, and now they are trying to take it away,” high school senior Elizabeth Fiedler told The Star. “One parent has challenged numerous books all the while crying parents’ choice. However she is removing my parents’ choice to choose what I can and cannot read. She is taking on roles that are not her own, one as my educator and another as my parent. She has every right to decide what her own kids can and cannot read, but she has no right to decide what I can.”

In reviewing challenged books, Superintendent Brian Huff said earlier this month, community feedback is crucial to determine what “the vast majority of people deem as being appropriate or inappropriate for our books in our schools. We want to be reflective of our community. It’s very important to us.”

“I will verify also that no one individual has any more power than any one other individual when it comes to challenging books. Our policy merely allows for an individual to initiate the process,” Huff said. “The process remains the same for all of our books. And we’re going to continue to follow that process no matter how many book reviews we get in the future.”

The Star’s attempts to reach Schmidt were unsuccessful.

Other districts in the Kansas City metro and across the country are seeing a similar controversy, with a small number of parents attempting to remove several library books. Conservative parent groups share lists of common titles they consider inappropriate, many of them written by or feature characters who are people of color or identify as LGBTQ.

Librarians and free speech advocates argue that banning books violates students’ First Amendment rights and leads to the censorship of diverse viewpoints.

The Lee’s Summit school district has received nearly 200 challenges to 90 book titles so far this year. The deluge of complaints, submitted by only six individuals, has led the district to form 28 committees to evaluate the challenged books and make recommendations on whether to retain or remove them. District spokeswoman Katy Bergen said the process is wrapping up this week.

Gardner Edgerton High School
Gardner Edgerton High School

Books pulled from libraries

During last month’s school board meeting, Schmidt read from one of the books she’s challenging, “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas.

“He worked me in great sweeping strokes and when his tongue slid inside me I reached up to grab the edge of the table,” she started.

Board president Tom Reddin stopped her. “We do have children present and watching. I would prefer you not get graphic.”

Schmidt has argued that Reddin’s objection is proof the books are inappropriate.

Her first challenge came in late August, when she requested “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” be removed from the required reading list for 10th graders. The book, a common reading requirement, is based on author Sherman Alexie’s own experiences and tells the story of a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The protagonist moves to attend an all-white high school in a farm town “where the only other Indian is the school mascot,” as the publisher describes it.

Schmidt found issue with characters using slurs and profanity, and with sexual references, such as masturbation. The book has been one of the top most-challenged books over the past decade, according to the American Library Association.

“These topics will make students uncomfortable, distracted, and embarrassed,” Schmidt wrote in her challenge. “Some students are naive and don’t know what all of these terms mean. Imagine raising your hand in class and asking the teacher what masturbation is? These topics are ones that a parent should be having with their child and not from a required reading piece of literature in their school or by their teacher.”

A district committee — made up of two school board members, administrators, a library media specialist, two members of the language arts department, a parent and a student — determined the book was appropriate.

“This text is the only approved novel by a Native-American author in the high school curriculum, and it speaks not only to the need for representations of diverse authors but also to the lived experiences of students. It is written in a diary-style format that clearly and specifically relates to students in the sophomore year in that the narrator’s style is authentic, relatable, and accessible for readers across ability levels,” the committee wrote.

The committee said the passages that troubled Schmidt were relevant and necessary lessons “for students who may see themselves in those situations of ‘otherness.’”

The majority-conservative school board in October voted 5-1 to keep the book in the curriculum.

Schmidt continued to challenge books. She submitted complaints with several pages of excerpts from the novels, including sex scenes and depictions of violence.

Administrators reviewed and agreed to remove seven of them.

Three in the high school library are in a series by author Mila Gray: “Come Back to Me,” “Stay With Me” and “Run Away With Me.” The novels, which deal with romance, love and loss, were marketed as appropriate for ages 16 to 18 by the publisher.

In her challenge, Schmidt argued the books were “introducing porn to minors” because they include sex scenes.

“An adult supplied this porn, not once, but now twice, to minors at GEHS,” she wrote. “I am not being dramatic. I am a concerned mom.”

Another book removed from the library was “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover, a romance novel about a young woman breaking the cycle of domestic abuse. And the other three banned titles are in the bestselling fantasy series by Sarah J. Maas: “A Court of Mist and Fury,” “A Court of Silver Flames” and “Empire of Storms.”

“This isn’t an elementary school library or even middle school. Some of these (high school) kids are going to be off on their own in less than a year. And we’re going to control what they read?” former school board member Kristen Schultz said. “There are a lot of different ways to come up with a solution that would be beneficial to everyone involved, rather than allowing one person to say nobody can read this. I think it’s a strong infringement of students’ First Amendment rights.”

Books under review

Heather Peeke, the district’s director of high school educational services, said administrators asked committee members to review the three other challenged books.

Upon receiving the books, they will have 30 days to read them and use a rubric to make a determination, which will be brought to the school board for a vote.

One of the books is available in middle school libraries, according to Schmidt’s complaint. “Bait” by Alex Sanchez, the story of a troubled teenager who ends up in juvenile court, is marketed for children ages 12 and up. Schmidt argues that the book’s depiction of violence and abuse is inappropriate for students.

“This is teaching our children how to harm themselves,” she wrote.

In the high school library, she is challenging “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, a story of a girl suffering from mental illness and an eating disorder, as well as “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, about five troubled teenagers who fall into prostitution.

“Keeping sexually explicit and inappropriate books out of schools is not banning books, it’s keeping children safe and should be common sense,” Irina Weaver, with the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty Johnson County, told the school board this month. “Parents have the right to lead all aspects of the upbringing of their children, including their education. … Parents ultimately determine what is best for their child, not teachers, not librarians or administrators or even the board.”

Huff said earlier this month that the books remain in circulation while under review.

Peeke said that in her 13 years with the district, she has not seen so much turmoil over books.

“We do have policy that allows a parent who is uncomfortable with a particular required book in class to request an alternative to that particular book, that will still meet the standards for that class. So we’ve had a handful of those instances where families have reached out and we provide that option,” Peeke said. “But in my time at the district level, a book review like this, this is a new experience.”

During October’s school board meeting, Huff said that library materials and books included in the curriculum are vetted carefully, with staff “considering reviews for the books, considering the content and material, how it’s going to fit in with the curriculum, how it might challenge students both in the literary content as well as being able to discuss topics that this book may bring up.

“It also is important that it have acceptable content, based on what our community standards would have, based on the age and maturity level of students.”

Huff said the district found 70% of novels used in the high school have either been challenged or banned at one time.

“These are novels that we use that are approved and in use right now. To give you a few examples, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for racial slurs. ‘Of Mice and Men’ for racial slurs and racist stereotypes. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ … there’s a lot of sex and there’s suicide in there.

“‘Animal Farm,’ political theories. When that first came out it was very hot and debated a lot. ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ for sexual explicitness and political views. … And ‘Frankenstein.’ What could be wrong with ‘Frankenstein,’ right? It’s dealing with the macabre. All of these books have had their issues in the past.”

He said the district can improve transparency, so that parents are aware of what books are available or will be required reading.

“We’re never going to have 100% support of our parents or our professional educators when we put books in place,” he said. “…We also want to take into consideration that we want our students to work through challenging material. We want material that’s going to make them think, to make them even potentially change positions, to make them argue.”

Over the past couple of years, GOP lawmakers, political action committees and conservative parent groups in the Kansas City metro and across the country have spearheaded challenges to school library books, mostly featuring racially diverse or LGBTQ characters.

Librarians have raised concerns over harassment, with some questioning whether to stay in their jobs.

Missouri librarians are suing over a new law that bans sexually explicit material from schools, leading to districts removing hundreds of books — including classic novels, human anatomy texts and Holocaust history books, according to a lawsuit filed in Jackson County Court.

House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, wants to cut $4.5 million, the full budget for state aid to libraries, in retaliation for the lawsuit.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has proposed a rule that would threaten public libraries’ state funding for making “age-inappropriate materials” available to minors. Ashcroft’s office received 20,000 public comments on the proposal, including widespread criticism from librarians and free speech advocates who say it is an attack on intellectual freedom.

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued the Independence school district over its book removal policy, after the school board banned the children’s book “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War” from elementary school libraries because it features a nonbinary character. The pending lawsuit aims to end the school district’s policy of automatically removing library materials after it receives a challenge, before any review has taken place.