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Amid controversy, superintendent pulls graphic novel from school library

Harrisonburg High School. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards removed the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” from the high school’s library this week after people raised concerns at last week’s school board meeting — and following similar objections in school districts in Texas and Northern Virginia

While the school district has a process for people to formally challenge whether books should be available to public school students, Richards made the decision to pull “Gender Queer” on his own.

In an email to The Citizen, Richards said that while he has an obligation to put challenged material through a process that ensures a deliberative and balanced outcome, he said he also has “a more primary responsibility to protect the safety and wellbeing of students.”

He said the graphic novel, which author Maia Kobabe published in 2014 as an autobiography, has illustrations that could be inappropriate for younger children. As a graphic novel, it shows nudity and some sexually explicit illustrations. Even if an older student checks out a book from Harrisonburg High School’s library, those images then could be accessible to younger siblings, he said. 

“A graphic novel makes images immediately available to anyone who may come across them without the context provided in a textual novel,” Richards said. “A graphic novel is different because it’s right there. There’s no question of what it is.”

Richards said there are two distinct issues. First, there’s been discussion of whether or not LGBTQ+ books should be in school libraries. He said his answer to that is a resounding “yes.” The second issue is more complex, which is what level of sexual content is appropriate for young adult books in school libraries. And that’s where the two issues are being conflated in some of the conversations in other districts. 

“It is important to keep the questions separate because sexuality will always be in young adult literature  because it is a normal part of growing up, and books with LGBTQ+ characters, on average, are no more  sexual than books without LGBTQ+ characters,” Richards said.

Determining whether a certain piece of young adult literature is “age appropriate” refers to whether students within a certain age range can reasonably be expected to process the  information in a healthy way. 

Books are almost always categorized in age ranges by the publisher, which librarians rely upon when searching the catalog to keep the library’s selection up to date. The age ranges are supposed to guide school divisions in terms of both content appropriateness and for reading comprehension level.

“And so as you get up in age level, then you can have a higher level of sexual content, if you will,” Richards said. “I can’t really hold librarians to the standard of having read cover to cover every book they order, so we see parents as partners in this. If they see something we miss then we appreciate it when they point it out.”

If a book is age appropriate, then the discussion shifts to the content. 

“Is the content an integral part of the story and adequately contextualized? Alternatively, does the content serve an educational purpose?” Richards said. “If the answer to such questions is also yes, then the book remains in circulation.”

He also made it clear that pulling “Gender Queer” from the shelves has nothing to do with its title, or the fact that its author and characters are LGBTQ+. 

“As I stated at the outset, the two questions are completely separate. We will continue to support our LGBTQ+ students by providing appropriate materials reflecting and respecting the realities of their lives,” Richards said.

Kobabe, the author of “Gender Queer,” wrote the graphic novel as a way to help explain being nonbinary and asexual and, according to the graphic novel’s description, “includes the mortification and 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.”

“Gender Queer” specifically came up during the public comment period in Thursday’s school board meeting when one speaker compared it to pornography. One person accused the board of violating state law by having sexually explicit books in school libraries, and pushing in LGBTQ+ narratives to confuse their children.

“I was saddened to see that the school system is providing access to sexually explicit materials to children without parental consent,” one parent said at Thursday’s meeting. “You are distributing porn to minors.”

Richards said waving specific books in front of the school board isn’t the answer. School Board Policy 734 provides a process for the review of a book that a parent/guardian feels is inappropriate.

The complaint form asks questions, including whether the complainant has read the entire piece or is pulling from an excerpt, which Richards said has been the case in Texas and Northern Virginia.

While he said there haven’t yet been any formal challenges to some of the controversial material presented at last Thursday’s board meeting, he’s asked district staff to form a team to examine any other graphic novels in the Harrisonburg High School library with these standards in mind. He also said he hopes it’ll eventually lead to a top-down review of the division’s reading materials.

Questions of ‘Transparency’

When asked if he sees a lack of transparency between HCPS schools and parents as an issue, Richards said he doesn’t. He said he believes people are often making broad generalizations that “don’t really apply.”

“In Harrisonburg we work very closely individually with families. We do all sorts of work to connect families to schools and make sure that we’re communicating clearly and thoroughly,” Richards said.

He said part of it has to do with a small portion of the Virginia School Board Association’s guidelines and model policies. The provision states that when a family might not be supportive of a student who is questioning their gender or transitioning, it’s not appropriate for the school to be “the one that outs the student to the family.”

“Which is really disheartening to me that people make such a big deal out of that one piece, which is really in there to protect some highly vulnerable students,” Richards said. “And they extend that and generalize that into some kind of a transparency problem, generally — which is not accurate and not really fair to the educators who are working so well with our families.”

He said the model policy is correct and has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

“They all say the same thing: you need to be careful with communication,” Richards said. “I don’t think the focus should be on allegedly keeping information from them, but instead on maybe helping students and families connect on these things.”

Many of those who expressed concerns with or opposition to LGBTQ+ literature at Thursday’s meeting identified themselves as being from communities in surrounding Rockingham County — and not from within the city limits.

Richards said they technically shouldn’t be speaking at other tax-based jurisdictions’ board meetings.

“They’re not stakeholders,” Richards said.

The board hasn’t chased them away or told them not to attend, and Richards said he doesn’t anticipate that happening in the future. But he also said he hopes nobody would disagree with what they’re trying to do, which is to provide a supportive and welcoming atmosphere.

“And we all recognize that there are marginalized students who have not felt the same level of support by our society as other students,” Richards said. “LGBTQ students are one group. I think if people took a step back and looked at that, then they might see that their political priorities or personal priorities really need to take a backseat to these other priorities of supporting students.”

And he said parents play a vital role as partners to the school system, as they are the first teachers of children.

“And people coming in with generalized political agendas are not helping establish those parent to school connections in any way,” Richards said. “So it’s very frustrating.”


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