Passionate debate continues over school library books on gender identity in Westfield

MJ Slaby
Indianapolis Star

What — if anything — to do with books addressing gender identity at elementary schools was once again the focus of a Westfield Washington school board meeting.

In the longest public comment session yet on this topic, nearly 90 people spoke to the board Tuesday night in almost three hours of in-person comments as well as emails that were read aloud to a packed meeting room. There was also an overflow room set up in the cafeteria.

This topic caused a stir in Westfield last month when an online survey from the Indiana Family Institute was shared in the Westfield community. The survey listed specific books, three about gender identity and one about death, and asked participants if they were comfortable with their students having access to the books in school.

That led to nearly an hour of public comment at the March school board meeting, and since then, the board has met in a work session to discuss library policy, new community organization Unify Westfield was formed and a pair of opposing petitions were created.

However, Tuesday night was the first time that district leaders addressed the topic to the public at a regular school board meeting.

“We educate young people to be culturally and self-aware,” said interim superintendent Chris Baldwin as he ended his report ahead of public comment. “We are not pushing for anything but student growth.”

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He and school board president Jimmy Cox stressed that they are proud of school employees and the good work that’s happening in the district.

“As a school board, our job is not to micromanage the staff,” Cox said. “We trust them because they are experts in their fields.”

Both leaders stressed that they were there to listen to the community.

The debate over the books reflects a larger tension in the Westfield community and elsewhere as schools ramp up diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. While some parents support the efforts, others want schools to stick to the academic subjects like reading, math and science.

Comments show opposing views

As commenters spoke, many received applause from supporters. A few were visibly emotional as they shared their stories, especially those speaking about the challenges of growing up gay or transgender.

"You have to put on a brave face and body armor to go outside," said Anna Lee Schade, a junior at Westfield High School, adding that books like the ones being discussed would have helped her feel more confident sooner.

Many agreed they wanted the best for kids, but they couldn’t agree on how to get there.

Parents who didn’t want books on gender identity in the school libraries said having the books there was limiting their right as parents to choose how they would address the topic with their children.

Ashley McFadden, a Westfield alumna and parent of a student, said while gender identity is a topic that students can benefit learning from, “it is 100% outside the purview” of schools.

“Public schools need to stay in their lane,” she said.

For others, keeping the books was about the right of parents to have their students have access to a variety of books. Plus, they said it was a matter of representation so all students could see themselves and their families in books.

Brendan Crews, a parent in the district, said he’s fully in support of a wide variety of library materials.

"If you want to have conversations with kids at home, you can do that," he said adding that the books might add to that talk. "You shouldn’t restrict kids' ability to learn and ask questions."

Some who spoke said keeping the books was tolerant and a way to support all students. Others said keeping the books showed a lack of religious tolerance.

Many speakers who said they didn’t want the books in the school media centers said that the books didn’t have to go all together, but could be moved to a counselor’s office or be restricted without parent permission.

But those in favor of the books being available to all students said that option didn't work because it isolated students who were interested and could potentially out them before they are ready.

Petitions gauge public opinion

In the days before Tuesday’s meeting, a pair of online petitions were circulating in Westfield. “Age Appropriate Books for Westfield Washington Students” asks those who sign to "join Unify Westfield in our effort to have these books removed from areas where they can be freely accessed in the schools and into the school counselor's office." The petition also calls for written approval from parents. 

Unify Westfield is a new community group that defines itself as helping the district stick to its guiding principles of "respect, responsibility, honesty, compassion, and hard work."

On the list of signatures is Andy Cook, Westfield Mayor as well as his wife and two sons. Vicki Duncan Gardner, spokesperson for the city, said the mayor signed as a grandparent and has no plans to reach out to the school on the topic.

"To him, this is a matter of when and how parents should be involved in critical matters to their children," she said, adding that the Mayor said when "sexual orientation issues" are an appropriate discussion should be up to parents.

District leaders have previously stressed that gender identity is about how a person views their gender, not who they love.

Duncan Gardner also stressed that the mayor is supportive of diversity, equity and inclusion work in the city including discussions at the city aiming to make sure it is an inclusive workplace.

The other petition, from Westfield Parents for Change, a group that aims to combat racism and bigotry in Westfield and its schools, is titled “Access to Diverse Books.” It asks those who sign to support the books that are currently in the libraries and were "deemed age-appropriate by experts and professionals in the field of library science."

"It is a dangerous precedent to let individual parents decide what books are available to all children, especially when there is already a process in place for a parent to restrict access to the books their child can check out by genre, author, or title," the petition reads.

Per the district, parents can request that their student doesn’t take certain books or books on a specific topic from the shared libraries, which are in common areas of elementary schools, and from the media centers.

As of Wednesday morning, both petitions had more than 1,500 signatures, with the petition in support of the books coming out about 200 signatures ahead. 

What the school board will vote on

While comments about these books have dominated recent school board meetings, the topic of library books was not on the board’s agenda for Tuesday's meeting.

A vote on whether or not the books should stay is not before the board. However, two related policies are expected to go before the board soon, but a date has not been set.

Chris Baldwin

One would standardize how books are selected for school libraries, and the other would formalize a process for how books and other educational materials are challenged. 

District spokesperson Joshua Andrews previously said the district already had processes in place, and started working on formal policies earlier this school year after a book was challenged.

In order for the policies to be approved, they would go before the school board for readings at two meetings before a vote.

Cox said the school board will look to the new superintendent for guidance on library policy. The district is currently searching for a superintendent and a new leader is expected to start in July.

The school board’s next meeting is 7 p.m. May 11 at Westfield Middle School.

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at mslaby@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.