Acclaimed author Ellen Hopkins, leaked emails spark debate at Brandywine school board meeting

Published 10:20 pm Monday, October 16, 2023

NILES — The Brandywine Board of Education’s new sexually explicit books and materials policy remains controversial despite gaining unanimous board approval last month. Monday, nationally acclaimed author Ellen Hopkins also lent her voice to the debate.

Hopkins, a Missouri resident and New York Times bestselling author of young adult books on sensitive topics, was invited to Brandywine by parents Lyle and Jen Unger. Hopkins calls herself “most banned author in America” and was scheduled to speak Tuesday morning at a high school assembly.

Monday, Hopkins spoke to board members about some of the books she has written and why she thinks it’s important for young people to hear about sometimes controversial subjects. Her books include “Crank” and “Tricks” which talk about issues such as drug abuse, teen pregnancy, prostitution and human trafficking.

Board members engaged with Hopkins about her books, including at what age it is appropriate for students to read about such subjects. They also questioned Superintendent Travis Walker on how the Hopkins visit came about and how the decision was made to require parental permission to go to the assembly.

Walker said he didn’t know the assembly topic initially but then decided to require parental permission to attend when he did.

“Knowing the controversy around books like these the last nine months, I thought it was appropriate way to offer the program without upsetting people,” he said. “I wanted to make sure parents’ rights were respected.”

He said he felt it best to limit attendance to high school juniors and seniors although he did say at least one sophomore got parental permission to attended. He said he expected between 30 and 40 students to attend the Tuesday morning assembly.

For her part, Hopkins said she wasn’t going to read anything sexually explicit.

“I’m only here to open some minds in the community, I’m not here to harm the kids,” she said. “I have no problem with parental involvement.”

She said afterwards that she came to address the new school board policy and the problem of limiting access of certain books to certain books. She said one of her books is often “banned” because a rape scene involving her daughter is taken out of context. She added that she came because of people’s concerns and that no one paid her to come.

Monday’s meeting also featured debate among board members on other topics such as adding violent language to the sexually explicit book and material policy. Board members ended up saying that the topic will be the subject of one or two upcoming committee of the whole sessions.

“The big elephant in the room is defining what constitutes violence,” Board Secretary Angela Seastrom said. “Language can be violent and not offensive such as in describing historical events. We can piggy back it onto the sexually explicit policy.”

Board members also debated the leak of staff emails earlier this fall to the conservative news site, Real News Michiana. Those emails primarily concerned the diverse books grant teachers sought and received this summer.

On questioning by Trustee Jessica Crouch, Board President Thomas Payne acknowledged he had leaked the emails.

“I did, I thought it was appropriate for the community to know what’s going with the faculty and staff,” he said. “It makes sense to know what’s happening.”

Crouch responded that she didn’t think the email leak benefited anyone. Others disagreed. Board Vice-President Elaine McKee said those who read the article are the district’s stakeholders, while Seastrom said she didn’t see what the problem was if the emails were subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Crouch also questioned what she sees as rising legal bills and the district paying for Payne’s conversations with one or more of the district’s attorneys on topics such as the possible diverse books grant investigation.

In public comments, several people spoke on both sides of the sexually explicit books and materials policy.