In April, the Solana Beach School District implemented a new plan for how to vet donations of books and other media and officials said it will keep the decision in the hands of local schools and out of politics. But some parents and advocacy organizations are suspicious of the timing.
They’re worried about the plan to place some material dealing with “debatable topics” on a bookshelf only accessible to children who have parental approval with library staff guidance. They’re especially concerned because of the donation that preceded the plan’s adoption.
District officials said they realized they needed a way to standardize how they vetted donated books after they received three separate collections of books in short succession. But critics believe parental pushback to one of the collections — a set of LGBTQ-affirming books donated by the nonprofit Open Books, formerly known as Gender Nation — played an outsized role in the district’s decision to create it.
Open Books provides age-appropriate books meant to affirm those with gender-diverse and LGBTQ identities to libraries and schools. The organization has been embraced by California officials, like State Superintendent Tony Thurmond who applauded a donation it made to San Francisco schools at a May event.
Open Books donated the collection to the Solana Beach School District last April at the request of a teacher but the books have remained out of circulation. It included titles like “And Tango Makes Three,” the true story of two male penguins who raised a chick, “It’s Okay To Be Different,” which celebrates children’s individuality and “Melissa,” about a young trans child’s journey to accepting their identity.
Despite being lauded by reviewers, “Melissa,” which is meant for children ages 8 to 12, has for years has been one of the books most challenged by parents according to the American Library Association.
Keiko Feldman and Megan Walsh, the founders of Open Books, said the nonprofit has donated books to over one thousand schools, mostly in California, and that Solana Beach is the only one in which they weren’t immediately put into general circulation.
The pushback in Solana Beach, which began after a post celebrating the donation was shared on social media, comes as a wave of anti-LGBTQ sentiment has swept the nation. Proposed legislation that would limit the rights of LGBTQ individuals has reached a record level, and many of those bills focus on schools. According to the American Library Association, five of the top 10 most challenged books of 2021 had to do with LGBTQ issues.
Simmering opposition to the books burst into public at a November Solana Beach School District meeting during which some parents spoke out both in opposition to, and in favor of them.
Marina Fleming, whose nonbinary child was a student in the K-6 district at the time and chose to speak in favor of the Open Books donation at that November meeting, was initially supportive of early drafts of the plan. She especially appreciated the stipulation that library staff, known as Curriculum Resource Teachers, with subject matter expertise would be responsible for the vetting of donated content.
But when the final policy was revealed, Fleming was dismayed to read that books that “take a particular position on a debatable topic,” would be relegated to a professional shelf that is only accessible with the consent of a parent or guardian and the guidance of a Curriculum Resource Teacher. If a child is restricted from accessing a book, the policy instructs library staff to “gently and discreetly redirect students” to “other books or shelves that match those students’ interests.”
Officials said that what constitutes a debatable topic would come from feedback from community and educational partners, but also underlined their commitment to not having their educational priorities derailed by potential feedback and to “provide materials on opposing viewpoints on debatable issues to enable students to develop critical thinking,” as is stated in their library plan.
Jodee Brentlinger, superintendent of the Solana Beach School District, said their plan reflects the district’s belief that “it is our responsibility to make sure that our students and our staff have a sense of belonging, that they feel welcomed, and they feel included. That would include any of our gender-diverse students.”
But the vagueness and seeming flexibility about what could would be considered a debatable topic troubles Fleming, and Max Disposti, who runs the North County LGBTQ Resource Center. He’s concerned by the possibility of books from the Open Books collection ending up on the professional shelf.
“This would really send a message to kids that this book and their identity is something that they should be ashamed of,” Disposti said. He also worries it will foster mistrust in the library staff by students.
In May, Disposti’s organization sent a letter to district officials, which was cosigned by organizations like the local chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and American Civil Liberties Union and the California Library Association. It went so far as to say the plan could result in a “soft ban” on certain content. He did not receive a response, but Brentlinger called this claim “misinformation.”
“If material has the potential of arousing strong reactions based on one’s cultural beliefs or religious beliefs and philosophies, that does not preclude that material from going into general circulation,” Jennifer Goldston, director of instruction and educational technology at the Solana Beach School District added.
District staff are currently in the process of vetting the three collections of donated books and said thus far all of those reviewed would be placed into general circulation, including a number of books from the Open Books set. Brentlinger could not confirm whether any of them would end up on the professional bookshelf, which primarily houses reference materials that may be out of the age range of students, but called it a “remote possibility.”
The plan also gives parents or guardians the ability to opt that their children be restricted from accessing “any topics, titles, or genres.” During group lessons or read-aloud sessions, if even one child in a class is restricted from reading a book, staff is instructed to select an alternate text.
Jen LaBarbera, director of education and advocacy for San Diego Pride and a cosigner of that May letter, has a master’s degree in library science and questioned if the policy could allow a parent to restrict their child’s access to books mentioning the holocaust, or the civil rights movement simply because they would prefer they not have access to them.
She acknowledged that some books about these topics may not be appropriate for elementary schoolers but said there are plenty of kid’s books about affirming those from marginalized backgrounds that could conceivably be at risk.
“This pushback is starting with these books from (Open Books) about LGBTQ people, but I would be surprised if it ended there and people didn’t take advantage of this policy to try and cut other books out of circulation,” she continued.
Brentlinger said that was unlikely and that the opt-out policy, which only applies to books in district libraries rather than those read in classroom settings, had been in place prior to the adoption of the new plan. Goldston added that in the past parents have primarily used the opt-out option to restrict children’s access to books that include things like war or guns, and also witchcraft or “potty humor,” such as Harry Potter or the children’s book series Captain Underpants, respectively.
The policy is no different than parents having a say in what their children can check out of a public library, said Brentlinger. And any request to restrict children from accessing certain content would be reviewed by a student’s teacher and staff and prompt a conversation about the specifics between all parties.
For Disposti, the children whose parents would opt to restrict them from accessing certain books, especially those having to deal with LGBTQ identities, may be the ones most in need of those resources.
“We are concerned about the kids who have parents like that because those are the kids that are going to have the highest risk of suicidal (ideations),” he said.
“I’ve seen them day in and day out and I see how much they suffer when they don’t get their parents’ support,” Disposti continued. “It’s devastating in their formation, their self-esteem, and it can take them years of therapy to recover.”
Transgender and nonbinary youth are at a significantly higher risk of experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts, with some data indicating 82 percent of trans youth had experienced suicidal thoughts. Emotional neglect by family and internalized self-stigma play a key role in those high suicide rates, though LGBTQ youth of color had the highest rates of suicidal thoughts.
But research shows that gender-affirming care and increased support in schools can save lives.
Even for children with parents like Fleming who embrace and celebrate their identity, the lack of representation can still affect them negatively, and can increase the risk of bullying on campus – another risk factor disproportionately experienced by LGBTQ youth that can lead to higher levels of depression and suicide. Trans youth who attended schools they felt were LGBTQ-affirming experienced lower rates of bullying.
“These kids are there,” Walsh said. “You can’t make someone LGBTQ, just like you cannot make someone straight. So, we’re either going to honor and reach out our hands and our hearts to the children that are already there, or we’re going to ignore them shut them away and create a hostile school environment for them where they end up self-harming.”
Solana Beach School District did recently develop a relationship with the nonprofit TransFamily Support Services, another signatory of that May letter, to provide guidance around these issues. While Fleming applauds that decision, she doesn’t feel it’s enough.
Ultimately, Fleming believes the district’s plan will make teachers feel like they need to be careful about what books they choose in read-aloud settings.
“I hope I’m wrong, but my experience was that my child’s teacher had trepidation in facing those concerned parents,” Fleming said. The lack of access to resources that affirm the diverse identities of students can not only negatively affect those children, she said, but can also prevent other children from better understanding their peers and lead to continued bullying.
Fleming said that every month their child asked her if the books from Open Books were on the library’s shelves, and every time she was asked she had to tell them they weren’t. Eventually, her child stopped asking.
“They graduated from that school without ever seeing a book that represented them,” Fleming said. “I don’t want that experience for other kids, whether they are out or not.”