Brandywine school board approves new explicit book policy

Published 11:44 am Tuesday, September 26, 2023

NILES — After several months of debate, Brandywine school board members unanimously adopted a new sexually explicit book and materials policy at their meeting Monday. That action didn’t stop several people including national authors in attendance from expressing their displeasure. 

The new policy requires parents to review book excerpts before giving middle and high school students permission to access sexually explicit books. The policy takes into consideration parents who want to give their students blanket access and allows them to do so if they read excerpts from all the books in question. 

Board President Thomas Payne called the new policy a good compromise that took into consideration disparate views from the board and the community. The policy affects 31 books currently in a restricted area of the middle/high school library and potentially the purchase of new books in the future. 

“I think our policy is good,” Payne said. “Mr. Martin (the district attorney) has helped us and provided counsel. He said we had done a really good job threading the needle and staying in compliance with the law and making sure we are not eliminating any books but allowing parents complete control of what their kids have access to.” 

Payne addressed a couple of issues raised at the Sept. 11 meeting, including that the library staff’s dissemination of explicit materials to parents does not violate copyright laws. “Mr. Martin said we are in a good position relative to any lawsuit and we should not be intimidated,” he said. 

While a handful of people spoke in support of the policy at the start of the meeting, a majority of speakers at both the start and end of the meeting were opposed to what they continue to describe as a book ban and attack on students’ freedoms and education. 

Carla Johnson and Michelle Funkhouser were among those speaking in support of the board.  

Johnson, of Buchanan, countered a recent letter to the editor in the Niles Daily Star that claimed the Brandywine policy violates freedom. She said freedom requires skill and not just will. “It is the role of public schools to provide lessons, practices and discipline,” she said. 

Funkhouser said that no books or materials are actually being banned and noted that at least one national author of one of the questioned books recently said that her book was never intended for children.

“I consider it to be an insult to masquerade explicit graphic sexual content as an issue of diversity,” she said. 

Brandywine teacher Debbie Carew told board members that they are turning libraries into battlegrounds with their actions. 

“This has nothing to do with reading and everything to do with control,” she said. “You want to remove all access to books you don’t approve of … You don’t want any middle ground, only scorched earth.” 

Carew later said the four board members elected last November have followed a supposed “4-D” strategy of “deny, disrupt, degrade and deceive.” 

“You are working to destroy the school from the inside out,” she said. “It is my belief that you want Brandywine to be a charter school.” 

Others also criticized both the new policy and the time the board has spent on the subject. Retired teacher Jim Rose said he found the new book policy “repulsive”. Retired superintendent John Jarpe said he was concerned that the board’s focus has been on this subject and not on student achievement and success. 

People also raised questions about the motives of the four new board members. One person said he had referred Payne to the Michigan Attorney General for allegedly revealing confidential district information, while another warned that the four could be subject to recalls in January for not doing their jobs. 

 Authors Adib Khorram and Samina Ahmed talked about the importance of kids being able to read about diverse themes. Their books are among those given to Brandywine through a We Need Diverse Books grant. “Words have power,” Ahmed said. “Withholding books is censorship … A free people read freely.” 

We Need Diverse Books representative Kaitlyn Patterson said her organization received over 100 applications and chose Brandywine as one of the five getting grants. She said their goal is to bring books with diverse themes to children around the country. 

“We’ve been discouraged that the distribution of the books has been halted,” she said. “How can we empower young kids if we deny them the chance to read these books? You may argue it’s not book banning but book banning can take many forms. Censorship is being played out in real time. We stand with your students and educators.” 

The organization awarded Brandywine $5,000 to buy books on diverse themes after Carew and fellow teacher Abilyn Janke submitted a grant application earlier this year. The board has questioned the process of how the grant application was applied for and received. 

The school board’s October meeting is expected to feature discussion on issues such as what should be done about violent books and materials in the school libraries, the We Need Diverse Books grant and the moratorium the board set in place earlier this year on the purchase of new books.