Harford County Board of Education member names six books that concerned parents deem inappropriate
At last week’s school board meeting, Harford County Board of Education Vice President Melissa Hahn named six books in county schools that she and other parents have deemed inappropriate.
Her remarks were a response to parents and community leaders who shared their concerns about the formation of a new book review committee at the Sept. 11 board meeting. School officials have addressed those concerns by saying the committee does not review books but examines the way the school system evaluates and purchases reading materials.
Hahn listed six books: “Gender Queer,” “Flamer,” “Lawn Boy,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “A is for Activist” and “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.” Most of the books are focused on the LGBTQIA+ community and gender identity.
“These books are in HCPS middle and high schools, along with many others, and some in our elementary schools,” she said. “We’re not trying to ban books; we want materials in our schools to be educational and age appropriate.”
“Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, is an autobiography that follows the author’s journey of self-identity, including the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, facing the trauma of Pap smears, and a very brief Tinder Journey, according to a summary on Amazon.
“Lawn Boy” is a semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathan Evison that tells the story of Mike Muñoz as a boy and then young man trying to find his way economically, socially and sexually, according to a summary on Amazon.
Both books are among the most challenged by conservative activists in the nation and have been challenged in neighboring counties, including Baltimore County, for their sexually explicit content. From July 2021 to December 2022, “Gender Queer” was banned in 56 school districts, according to PEN America, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to raise awareness for the protection of free expression worldwide.
“Lawn Boy” was challenged in at least 35 school districts, according to The Washington Post.
“Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” is a graphic novel that covers relationships, friendships, gender, sexuality, anatomy, body image, safe sex, sexting, jealousy, rejection and sex education, according to a summary on Amazon.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a young adult nonfiction work by journalist and activist George M. Johnson. The book consists of a series of essays following Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black man in Plainfield, New Jersey, and Virginia, and covers topics such as gender identity, toxic masculinity, brotherhood, family, structural marginalization, consent and Black joy, according to a summary on Amazon.
Both books were challenged in Carroll County Public School libraries in August.
“Flamer” is a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Mike Curato that is set in 1995 at a Boy Scouts summer camp. It tells the story of Aiden, who is bullied for his appearance and embarks on a path of self acceptance. The book is recommended to ages 14 and older or with adult guidance, according to Curato’s website.
“A is for Activist” is an ABC board book by Innosanto Nagara. The books uses alliteration, rhyming and vibrant illustrations to make the book exciting for children, while the issues it brings up resonate with their parents’ values of community, equality and justice, according to a summary on Amazon.
“Currently, of the books mentioned by Board of Education Vice President Hahn, ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir,’ ‘Flamer,’ ‘Lawn Boy’ and ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ are on the shelves of several high school libraries,” Kyle Andersen, public information officer for the school system and school board, said in a statement Thursday. “If a parent/guardian has any concerns for the library reading material of their specific child(ren), they are encouraged to contact the school librarian regarding books and/or topics that should be restricted for their specific child(ren).”
Book review committee
County Council member Aaron Penman mentioned the book review committee at a council meeting after some parents shared their concerns about library books containing what they consider pornographic material. Council members Dion Guthrie and Jessica Boyle-Tsottles worked with Penman on the book review initiative before the summer break, according to Penman.
Penman and Boyle-Tsottles, both Republicans, are first-term council members; Guthrie, a Democrat, was reelected to office in November after previously serving on the council from 2016-2014. Hahn is serving her first term on the school board, having been elected in November to represent District D.
However, Superintendent Sean Bulson said during the Sept. 11 school board meeting that it is not a book review committee, but a small group that represents an array of stakeholders to consider the many elements involved in purchasing and reviewing books.
“HCPS has formed a workgroup to review the existing practices of the evaluation and selection of library materials and the reconsideration process of challenged library materials that includes representatives from the community, local government, HCPS leadership and other HCPS employees,” saidAndersen.
Board member Carol Mueller expressed her concerns about the group on her Facebook page. “The work group that was formed by the County Council and HCPS last April was just revealed at the BOE meeting Monday,” Mueller’s Sept. 16 post read. “The Board was not involved or informed at the time. More information will come out but the purpose is to write procedures for book selection, not to ban books.”
Mueller, a former Harford County Public Schools teacher and retired professor with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, was appointed to the Board of Education in February 2020 by the County Council as the representative for District C. She was elected to her seat last year and, until July, served as president of the school board.
It is more important than ever to stay involved. The work group that was formed by the county council and HCPS last April was just revealed at the BOE meeting Monday. Lauren Strauss was selected prior to joining the Board. The Board was not involved or informed at the time. More information will come out but the purpose is to write procedures for book selection, not to ban books. There will be opportunities for public comment.
During the public comment period at the Sept. 11 meeting, parents shared concerns about the committee, saying the school board has not been transparent about it and questioning whether the formation of the small group was driven by the controversial conservative political action group Moms For Liberty and its supporters. Some community members said there are no books with pornographic content being used in the schools.
But Hahn disagrees. At the Sept. 18 school board meeting, she said that there are some books that do include inappropriate content.
“I’ve seen many people calling out books, and others denying that these books are in HCPS, and I would like to clear that up,” said Hahn. “HCPS has books in our libraries that have been removed from school libraries all over the country.”
Since school started a month ago, Hahn said some parents reached out to her about what students were learning in English class. Some topics that parents said were being addressed were police reform, social change and the power of protests, and types of activism, she said.
Hahn said she has asked to approve the curriculum. She also asked when the curriculum had been approved and if it was brought to the Board of Education for adoption and approval, but has not yet received answers.
“The reason why I am relaying this information is to clear up the misconception that this type of thing does not exist in HCPS; sadly it does,” she said. “As a member of the Board of Education of Harford County, I am deeply concerned. ... I, for one, am unwilling to sit back and watch this happen.”
According to Andersen, the Board of Education approves curriculum as recommended by the superintendent, based on state law and HCPS policies. “The Board does not vet specific curriculum and, per policy, has delegated curriculum development to the subject matter experts within the HCPS Division of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment,” he said.
A committee reviews all curriculum and with the curriculum division, presents curriculum to the superintendent, who then makes any curriculum recommendations to the Board of Education. The board only has the authority to approve curriculum as presented to it, according to Bulson.
Regarding the specific lessons, Bulson said they may have unintentionally been taken out of context. He said the lessons are designed to help students develop critical thinking skills.
“It is important to consider the educational goals and context of lessons before drawing conclusions about their intent or impact,” Bulson said in a statement.