Some Gorham educators are defending gender identity posters and a gay coming of age memoir recently challenged by parents, stating the materials prepare students for a complex world.
Members of the district’s community including at least two parents contend that some of the books in the high school library are not appropriate for some students’ ages.
One parent has filed a complaint about posters in the middle school that deal with gender identities, contending that there has not been equal outreach on straight sexuality nor genders assigned at birth.
Some of the controversies will play out in closed-door school board hearings in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, school staff who spoke with the American Journal defended the posters and books.
Superintendent Heather Perry said the posters include biological genders and straight sexuality, covering everything under the umbrella of sexuality and gender.
“It is very important for our classrooms to be culturally responsive,” grade six teacher Meghan Rounds said. “It’s easy to pigeonhole ourselves into one way of thinking, but it doesn’t do our students any favors.”
Gorham’s sexual health curriculum begins in the sixth grade. Materials like the posters add to that curriculum, Rounds said.
“We are stocking our libraries with age-appropriate texts,” Rounds said. “Granted, they may feature something different, they may highlight a homosexual protagonist or a black protagonist, but in all of these cases the stories are being written and (classified) as young adult lit by the publishers because they are in alignment with cognitive development of the age.”
George M. Johnson’s memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” available in the high school library and some high school classrooms, has been banned in schools in at least eight states, according to the author.
Its critics point to a detailed scene of two underage male cousins and the moments leading up to and including sexual activity.
The book is meant for older students, Gorham Middle School social worker Brooke Proulx said. The scene cited is being taken out of context and doesn’t glorify or promote sexual relations between cousins of the same sex, she said.
“It gets labeled as pornography, disgusting, without telling the whole story. This is a memoir,” Proulx said. “This was somebody’s life experience, and there are other kids that have that experience, or that need the support.”
Students “not in that category,” she said, can read the book and “understand and reflect on privilege.”
Resources regarding LGBTQ youth are just now becoming more available, Proulx said. It was rare even just 10 years ago to find books on those topics. That kind of representation is especially important because gay and transgender youth struggle with suicidal ideation at an alarming rate.
According to a study From the University of Pittsburgh’s Services for Teens at Risk Center, suicide rates are higher among trans youth and are often related to feelings of invalidation. It found that transgender adolescents have “higher odds of suicidality than cisgender adolescents,” with about 85% of transgender adolescents reporting “seriously considering suicide,” while over half of transgender adolescents attempted suicide.
Books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” are “important when it comes to healthy sexual development so people aren’t just finding things online,” Proulx said. “We want kids to be safe.”
Parent Andrew LaPlaca lodged a complaint about the book, but said he understands that “All Boys Aren’t Blue” can be important for some students.
However, he says there is a lack of oversight over who has access to it. The book may be appropriate for a senior in high school, he said, but he doesn’t believe it should be accessible to freshmen.
“They have no policy in place to restrict mature content to 14-year-olds,” LaPlaca said in an interview with the American Journal. “Maybe this is good for an 18-year-old, but there are 14-year-olds in the high school and they have no restrictions.”
In addition to his pending complaint about “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” LaPlaca has objected to a graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” available at the high school. That book does not deal with LGBTQ issues but depicts scenes of rape, nudity, violence and suicidal ideation.
His challenge of that book was denied by the school librarians, because, librarians said, it has value as a feminist story, does not glorify rape, nudity, violence or suicide, and has received critical acclaim.
LaPlaca said he still wants to see restrictions on mature content in place for younger students.
Parents now can contact teachers and school libraries to let them know they don’t want their child to have access to a specific book, he said, but it is up to them to remember individual parent requests and to check their email.
A system to flag when those books are checked out would bring added security, he said.
“I’m not saying to ban books,” he said. “I am welcoming to everyone in the world, but there is a responsibility from the school to protect our kids at the end of the day.”
LaPlaca also said he is unsure his concerns will be taken seriously based on how the district has responded to another parent, Eric Lane, and Lane’s request to remove the posters around sexuality and gender. Perry’s emails to staff members about Lane indicate that the district may try to stonewall Lane’s complaints, and show bias against him and other parents with the same concerns, LaPlaca said.
Lane, who has filed a complaint saying Perry and the School Department discriminated against him because of his Christian values, American Journal requests for comments declined.
LaPlaca, who says he hasn’t been allowed to speak or was cut off during School Committee meetings at times, said he and others feel like they aren’t getting a fair chance.
“My complaint is about the policy and how it was handled, and how we can address curriculum,” LaPlaca said.
Perry, however, said school staff does a good job of upholding school policy, along with excluding students from the curriculum when requested by parents.
She said she is open to the idea of LaPlaca’s library restrictions and the School Committee will reconvene in August to discuss it. She’s not sure it’s needed, however.
“I’m conservative when it comes to staffing and capacity and want to make sure we are focused on class and instruction,” Perry said. “To add that capacity is not necessary if parents reach out with the school effectively.”