Salem-Keizer rejects second book ban request, keeps ‘Gender Queer’ in local high schools

·8 min read

A second request to have a book removed from Salem-Keizer Public Schools libraries has been denied.

Earlier this year, members of the local parents' group Salem Keizer We Stand Together took issue with the book "Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Anti-Racism, and You" in local elementary schools.

A parent and leader of the group filed a formal complaint in March on behalf of the organization in an attempt to get the book removed. This initiated Salem-Keizer's "Reconsideration of Library and Instructional Materials" procedure.

A district book review committee voted 8-1 in April to deny the request.

The process was seen at the time as a rare instance. A formal request to reconsider a book had not happened since 2018.

However, just weeks later, it happened again.

Community members submitted a formal complaint to Salem-Keizer this May regarding the book "Gender Queer: A Memoir."

In June, a seven-person committee reviewed the book and unanimously voted to keep it in local high schools, as first reported by the Salem Reporter.

The local increase of book banning efforts seems to match a nationwide effort.

"Gender Queer" — a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, a nonbinary, queer author and illustrator from California — is held in three Salem-Keizer high school libraries. In 2021, “Gender Queer” became the most challenged book in the United States.

It is currently available at West Salem, South Salem and Sprague high schools. No schools have added or removed the book as a result of the June decision, according to district officials.

The book, originally published in 2019, touches on the "confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears," according to the book's online description.

"Gender Queer" is not a required text in the district, nor is it used to create homework assignments in any classroom, according to Salem-Keizer's book review committee report.

More: 'Gender Queer' author Maia Kobabe talks banned books

Many readers have raved about the book, especially for its reflection of asexual and nonbinary people — those who do not identify as either male or female. It has received several awards as well, according to the American Library Association, including a Stonewall Book Award in 2020.

Some, however, believe select illustrations are too explicit and the book is therefore not appropriate in a school setting.

Family members complain book is pornographic

The official complaint to remove "Gender Queer" from Salem-Keizer schools was filed in May by Mike and Ellie Mallek, who have grandchildren at West Salem High School.They said they first learned about the book when parents messaged screenshots of it to them.

According to their complaint, the Malleks first attempted to speak with educators at West Salem earlier that month about their concerns. They were later advised to file a formal complaint.

The Malleks said the book depicts, among other things, graphic images of genitalia and "various ... positions having sex."

They said they believe the main purpose of the material is "to promote various agendas" related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning community in an attempt to "make it more acceptable in the mainstream."

"It implies to the student that this type of behavior is completely acceptable and normal," they wrote in the complaint. "It could lead to a life of pornography addiction and deviant behavior. It could damage the student's future self-image and destroy ambitions."

They called on the district to remove "Gender Queer" from all school libraries, as well as any other books with related content.

When asked what materials they would suggest in place on the same subject, the Malleks said, "All books containing wholesome family values. It's not the school system's job to provide materials relating to deviant sexual behavior."

As of when the complaint was filed, the three copies of "Gender Queer" in the district were checked out a total of four times, as logged in the district's system.

The Malleks aren't the only ones who take issue with the book.

A Virginian judge in May ruled there is cause to declare "Gender Queer" as "obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors," clarifying there is sexually graphic content not suitable without parental consent. Salem-Keizer parents or guardians are allowed to restrict which books in the library their child can access.

Members of Salem Keizer We Stand Together testified at the July 12 school board meeting about the book, further stating they believe it should not be accessible in local schools.

Salem Keizer We Stand Together is a group of community members and parents who want to change how the school board works and how schools teach certain topics. They self-identify as nonpartisan; however, some of their goals, particularly around gender identity, race and sexuality, match those of conservative advocacy groups nationwide.

Mike Slagle, a grandparent and former parent in the district who unsuccessfully ran for the school board in 2021, was among those who testified on July 12. He's a member and leader with Salem Keizer We Stand Together. During his comments, he held up printed images from the book, as well as a printed definition of "pornography."

"It's not OK," he said about the book being in local schools. "It's very offensive."

Committee rules ‘Gender Queer,’ as a whole, is appropriate

Salem-Keizer's Library and Instructional Materials Reconsideration Review Committee is tasked with forming opinions based on a book as a whole, according to its guidelines, not just reflecting on pages "taken out of context."

The committee — made up of teachers, librarians, a community member, a child protection and prevention administrator and more — was tasked with two key questions: Did the district follow its library selection process and criteria? And therefore, is the book developmentally appropriate for local high school libraries?

The review committee met to discuss "Gender Queer" on June 1 and 15. These meetings were not public. The seven members voted unanimously in the second meeting to retain the book in Salem-Keizer high school libraries.

"The book will be necessary to keep in schools, to help be more inclusive and allow all students from theLGBTQ+ community to have a resource to refer (to)," the review committee wrote in its report. "In addition, the pages taken out of context (do) not represent the intention of the book and only served as an illustration to help provide (an) understanding of what the author was trying to portray in their book."

More books under microscope:Salem-Keizer denies request to ban anti-racism book 'Stamped (for Kids)'

The committee in its final report said the book expands on sexual orientation and gender identity in a way that is accessible to students, especially as a graphic novel.

They argue the book was selected following the collection development policy of the district, and that it reaches an underserved community within local schools, allowing them to feel included in literature.

They also argued it is a well-written and illustrated text, from a literary standpoint, citing the "large number of teen-specific literary awards" it's won.

"It is an excellent example of a memoir," they wrote. "It includes many visual metaphors, it promotes literacy and accessibility through the graphic format and it has modern language suitable to our students today."

Suzanne West, Salem-Keizer’s director of strategic initiatives, said the district has not received any formal complaints for other books at this time. No one is currently trying to appeal the June vote.

The complainants were notified on June 27 via email after an attempted phone call on June 24, West said.

Book banning in Salem-Keizer, nationwide

Complaints about books in Salem-Keizer are rare, and community members initiating the process to officially reconsider books is even rarer, Teresa Tolento, Salem-Keizer’s elementary director of curriculum, said in April.

The district receives one or two informal complaints a year, she said, which are typically settled at the school level.

Until "Stamped," a request for reconsideration hadn’t been filed since 2018, when a community member took issue with the "Left Behind" book series. In that case, the committee decided the series was better suited for middle schoolers, but the books were not removed, Tolento said.

The vast majority of books that have been challenged in Salem-Keizer are kept as they were, without restrictions, she added.

Since the reconsideration in 2018, the district's review process has been updated. The old process, Tolento explained, left the decision in the hands of building principals, the superintendent and the school board. The new process creates a committee of stakeholders, including teachers, librarians and parents.

Committee decisions can be appealed through the district’s complaint process.

A row of books at the Salem Public Library before construction began in 2020.
A row of books at the Salem Public Library before construction began in 2020.

Data from the American Library Association show challenges to books were brought at the highest rate they’ve ever recorded in 2021.

Last year, the ALA tracked 729 challenges to books in schools and libraries, noting this number is likely only a small portion of the true total — with their surveys showing that 82-97% of all challenges go unreported.

Books about LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities are also heavily targeted with book bans.

The ACLU said some of the most targeted books are those by or about people of color, like "Stamped (for Kids)." In 2020, the young adult iteration, "Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You" was the second most frequently challenged book of the year, according to the ALA. The most challenged book of that year was "George" by Alex Gino, a story about a young transgender girl.

Despite this large number of challenges, most attempts to ban books are unsuccessful and the materials remain in schools and libraries.

Previous reporting by Eddy Binford-Ross contributed to this report.

Contact Statesman Journal education reporter Natalie Pate at npate@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6745.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Salem-Keizer rejects second book ban request, keeps 'Gender Queer'