The Mat-Su School Board heard testimony for more than three hours before adjourning Wednesday night, opting not to continue the meeting past 10 p.m.
The testimony involved reaction from the public following an April 22 meeting in which the board voted 5-2 to remove the New York Times The learning Network, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. No public comment was provided to the board at the meeting in April. After 58 members of the public called in on Wednesday to provide their testimony on the removal of curriculum, the School Board adjourned to have the discussion continued at their May 20 meeting.
“Literature, especially literature deemed controversial, is an essential tool in building our skills in reasonable debate, that is the skill of civil debate is developed under the tutelage of our educators. Our teachers provide a safe place for students to explore the complexity of the human experience,” said Mat-Su Career and Technical High School junior Ozzy Huxford.
Just before 10 p.m., board member Sarah Welton moved to extend the meeting past 10 p.m., which was seconded by board member Kelsey Trimmer. The vote to continue the meeting failed 4-3 with members Ole Larson, Jim Hart, Jeff Taylor and Ryan Ponder voting no. The motion to adjourn that immediately followed passed 5-2 with Trimmer and Welton voting against adjournment. School Board Policy 9200 states, “Members of the board must endeavor to attend all meetings, study all materials presented with the agenda prior to attending the meeting, participate in the discussion of any items which come before the board, and vote on all motions and resolutions, abstaining only for compelling reasons. The board member should not subordinate the education of children and youth to any partisan principle, group interest, or the member’s own personal interest.”
Of the 58 members of the public who spoke on the English elective curriculum, 48 asked the board to rescind the April 22 vote. At one point, the live stream of the meeting had over 400 viewers. Members of the public who spoke in favor of removing the books asked for further standards for classroom materials.
“The whole crux of the thing is we need some standards slash filters slash rules for selecting our books and so in that light, I agree with what the board did but I think they need to take it s a step further and make some standards that we judge our reading material by,” said Janet Johnson.
Adults from a myriad of professions and backgrounds called in to voice their opinions, but Huxford was joined by just one other current MSBSD student, Palmer High School student Annika Gagnon, who is working to earn her IB Diploma when she graduates next spring. Gagnon took issue with the removal of Angelou’s book in particular.
“It is uncomfortable to read about the horrible ways that white people have treated people of color, however if we as white people can keep silencing people of color we continue the cycle of systematic racism within our country. Uncomfortable is not synonymous with dangerous. What is dangerous is if white people continue to be comfortable with the way people of color have been and continue to be discriminated against based on the color of their skin, something they cannot change. The only way to break this chain is through education and it is very difficult to learn when the material needed to grow is censored,” said Gagnon.
Each of the first 38 people that provided testimony asked that the board rescind their vote, but 10 of the following 11 members of the public agreed with the curriculum removal.
“I read a portion of the book. I think it’s called ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ It’s disgusting to think that this book would make English elective curriculum and reading lists for children in public school K-12. I don’t want my tax dollars going to teach kids out of books like this. It’s time the board looks into getting the Bible back into English electives curriculum and reading lists,” said Brian Endle.
Policy Director for the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Triada Stampas was among a handful of testifiers with legal backgrounds who suggested that the board’s April 22 action was in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
“From the first days of 100-year history, the ACLU has opposed censorship in all its forms. The first amendment does not allow government to get rid of or limit the use of books or ideas just because they are controversial, unpopular or offensive. Please understand that purging curricula of certain books and teaching materials because some parents do not or may not like them is government action favoring the opinion of some parents over others,” said Stampas.
Danalyn Dalrymple has led the charge to provide the five removed books for MSBSD students who desire to read them in the days following the April 22 board action with a group on Facebook that has connected adults who want to help donate to allow for students not to have to pay to read. Dalrymple mentioned that she has spoken to the board on several occasions, but noted that her testimony on Wednesday was unique.
“The idea that a few members of this board would substitute their judgment for the professional judgment of the administrators, teachers, and curriculum committee is extremely objectionable. Title four of the Alaska Administrative Code should’ve been your guide to approving that curriculum. Chapter five, section 80 provides that the governing body of a district shall comply with the statutes and regulations of the state in providing the districts educational program to students in the district. Those laws include the Alaska Safe Children’s Act,” said Dalrymple. “Your action amounts to the suppression of ideas in violation of the constitution. Your community, constituents and the law require you to rescind your decision.”
Rachel Gernat has served as an attorney in Alaska for 23 years prosecuting domestic violence, sex crimes, child abuse and child rape. Gernat mentioned that Alaska leads the nation in rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse statistics and that child rape in Alaska is six times the national average. Gernat said that 53 percent of female Mat-Su residents will experience sexual assault, domestic violence or both.
“In board of education vs Pico, the Supreme Court held that our constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas. Local school boards may not remove books simply because they dislike the ideas contained in them yet this is exactly what this school board did,” said Gernat.
Gernat offered further testimony as an author of the Alaska Safe Children’s Act who trained teachers on how to teach topics. Gernat said that schools are required by Alaska law to teach students about sexual abuse, assault, consent and healthy relationships and further noted the Miller vs. California case where censorship of material must pass three tests to be deemed obscene. Of the 289 pages in Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” graphic portions describing sexual assault takes up one half page. Gernat further postured that the difference between ban and remove is one without distinction. However, some testifiers were in favor of the change in curriculum.
“This seems to me to be a simple curriculum change and regardless of what you think of the books that were removed from the elective curriculum, it’s most certainly not a book ban,” said Kevin McCabe.
During the discussion on April 22, board member Larson said that he did not feel confident that parents were reviewing materials used in their children’s classrooms. While all five of the removed books are found in elective classes, District policy requires parent signatures before students can consume controversial materials in MSBSD classrooms. Students who do not receive parental consent can be given a different book to use during that class.
“The previous vote seemed to be taken for many reasons one of which was an assumption that parents would not be involved enough to make these decisions,” said Ben Wargo. “While there are many things that we will learn from this experience, I believe one thing we can take away from the huge response to the removal of materials from the curriculum is that we have learned that there area in fact many, many involved parents in this school district who care deeply about their children’s education and would like to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.”
During the April 22 discussion as to why board members felt controversial books should be removed, Hart said that reading graphic passages found in the texts could result in an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint filed against teachers. During an interview on April 23, Bergey said that he also feared Professional Teaching Practices Commission complaints against teachers using the controversial materials.
“I contacted both entities and they explained that such issues would not come under their per view if the texts were approved by the board,” said Mat-Su Educators Association President Dianne Shibe.
An overwhelming majority of those who called to testify on Wednesday asked the board to rescind their vote, but some members of the public felt that the majority of Mat-Su residents agreed with the April 22 decision.
“You might say I’m just part of the silent majority,” said Ron Johnson. “To the board, if you do feel it necessary to remove these five books from the not required reading lists, if you think that is in the best interest of the Mat-Su School District I will laud you for that. School board members, I do understand what you were trying to do when you removed these books from the required reading list and I want to tell you that I fully support that.”
Elizabeth Ripley asked the board if respect was paid to the Ahtna and Dena’ina peoples across the curricula and praised Dr. Goyette, saying that the highest level of leadership had been exemplified in converting to virtual delivery of education and meals to MSBSD students within one week.
“You ignored the procedures set up by the school district to honor the input of teachers and parents. You failed to understand the process allowing for teachers to substitute other works of literature if parents requested. You thought you knew better. My observation is that you are all white and predominantly male. You are all people of privilege of the dominant culture. It’s easier for people of privilege to ignore the rule, to override the process, to force their way. Your homogeneity reinforces group thinking and discourages critical thinking,” said Ripley. “You think you’re protecting people but really you’re reinforcing structural racism and inhibiting our young adults from grappling with archetypal themes and conflicts that are relevant to today’s society and must be wrestled with if we are to become more civilized.”
Ripley offered that the board should redirect their focus to finding a new superintendent and said that it was hard to imagine losing such a depth of experience in the administration. Nearly every member of the public that spoke to the board thanked members for their service. Denile Ault did the same, offering her thanks in Tlingit.
“There is nothing humble about banning books you have never read. There is nothing humble about questioning parent’s ability to review their child’s assigned curriculum, or in micromanaging what educators choose to teach in their classroom. There is nothing humble about debating semantics like the meaning of the word ‘ban.’ Where there is no humility, there is no service,” said Ault. “As is, five of you will forever be haunted by your vote to ban books in public education. You have the chance now to redeem yourselves, to right the relationship with the public you serve. If not, hear this: I am not in the habit of condoning fascism on indigenous soil. I promise on my great-great aunt’s grave, Elizabeth Peratrovich, to do everything in my power to unseat you in your next election if you do not vote to rescind. Gunalchéesh.”