Superintendent Spearman responds to Gov. McMaster’s letter on controversial book in school library

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 10:53 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Department of Education is now reviewing how districts pick which books are included in school libraries and will offer guidance to them on selecting books and what to do if someone complains.

The review stems from a complaint about a book found in a South Carolina school library earlier this month.

According to the SCDE, someone complained about the illustrated book Gender Queer: A Memoir being available at a high school library in the Fort Mill School District. The book, chronicling author Maia Kobabe’s LGBTQ-plus life, is described as a “guide on gender identity” on Amazon.

In September, Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County Public Schools, banned the book, and since then, other states and school districts have challenged its availability in school libraries.

After the complaint, Gov. Henry McMaster sent a letter last week to Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, in which he described Gender Queer as “obscene and pornographic” and asked the state Department of Education to investigate how the illustrated book ended up at Fort Mill school libraries and find out if it is at any other schools, while also calling for the department to develop a process “to review and approve the books and other materials that are available to students.”

In Spearman’s response, dated Nov. 17, she wrote, “the state has no formal authority over district purchased texts,” including library books.

But Spearman said the Department of Education will be reviewing districts’ policies for selecting books and their complaint processes, then drafting a model policy with best practices and “a strong, transparent process” for the public to voice concerns.

School librarians will be included in conducting this review, according to the SCDE.

“If any districts and schools don’t have both collection development policies and reconsideration policies, they definitely need to have them, so I can see how model policies could be useful,” University of South Carolina Assistant Professor Jenna Spiering said.

Spiering teaches and trains school librarians at UofSC’s School of Information Science.

She said these district policies typically outline that materials should be selected based on curriculum needs and student reading interest that reflects all students. Before librarians purchase new books, Spiering said they research different professional journals that review materials specifically for school librarians.

“They say what the recommended age range for a book is and whether or not a book is recommended for a collection, along with a little bit of synopsis on what the book’s about,” Spiering said.

Spearman wrote in her letter to McMaster that she was “shocked and disappointed that a book containing this explicit imagery was allowed to be present in a school library,” but also noted, “As we address this issue, we must also be cognizant of the vast diversity of the students and families we serve and ensure all feel welcome, safe, and supported within our schools.”

Kobabe, the author of Gender Queerwrote in an Oct. 29 op-ed in The Washington Post, “Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health.”

Spiering said school librarians’ job is to curate a collection for all students — “all races, religions, sexual orientation, gender” — and then let students and their families take it from there.

“Every parent has the right to decide with their student what’s appropriate for them to read, and we would never want school librarians making decisions for parents,” she said.

Spearman said the SCDE will present the findings from its review at the Dec. 14 State Board of Education meeting.

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