About 30 people had shuffled into a recent Republican Town Committee Meeting in Rochester when Joe Pires, the Old Rochester Regional School Committee member, pushed toward the front to say something. “We need to get more people with conservative views and more people who want to protect our children,” he began his speech.
Pires, up for re-election this May, has been the public face of a months-long effort to pull several books from the school library, alleging “ideology” pushed through sex education classes is, he and supporters say, leaching into other academic areas.
“It’s time to stand up and speak out,” he said before warning the crowd that “if they can allow sexualized literature in the library, and if they can allow my daughter in a bathroom with a biological male [transgender person] … it’s going to get a lot worse.”
As spring election season rolls out in Rochester, Dartmouth, Mattapoisett and towns across the South Coast, debates about book bans and parental influence in the curriculum have spread into several school committee races, owing in part to grassroots conservative organizing that seeks to drive voter turnout on these emotional issues.
Records obtained by The Light show that the Massachusetts Family Institute, a nonprofit policy group dedicated, according to its website, “to strengthening the family and affirming the Judeo-Christian values upon which it is based,” is one of several groups collecting information from Old Rochester Regional (ORR) schools through public records requests as part of a state and nationwide effort to energize parents around the issues of sex education and parents’ rights.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Mass. Family Institute, said he has been organizing widespread public records requests for the past two years, with a concerted effort over the last 11 months. His goal: creating a statewide database on sex education in every Commonwealth district.
When asked if this was a strategy to get more conservative parents out to vote, Beckwith answered: “That’s how this is supposed to work, right?”
Other groups have been pursuing public records from ORR asking for sex education curriculum and materials, confirmations of LGBTQ-authored books in the library, and even correspondence with a local anti-racist parents group.
The interest in compiling this information from South Coast schools is because “Massachusetts is the tip of the spear in the culture wars,” said Beckwith, in an interview. “The battles that we fought decades ago are ending up in other states.”
Other groups requesting this information include: Parents Defending Education, a national organization that says it wants to fight “indoctrination” in schools; Advocate Against Education Indoctrination, a social media campaign organized by a right-wing candidate for the Wakefield School Committee; The New Boston Post, a self-identified conservative online newspaper; and multiple requests made by local conservative activists in the tri-town area, most notably Anne Fernandes, a member of the Rochester School Committee (which is the separate board overseeing Rochester’s one elementary school).
Since it was established in 1991, the Mass. Family Institute has advocated for a variety of far-right positions, including continuing to oppose same sex marriage: “all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is detrimental to families,” it says on its website.
From 2015 to 2019, the Mass. Family Institute collected over $2.7 million in grants, gifts, contributions, and fees according to the most recently available tax records. In 2019 alone, the group spent more than a quarter-million dollars on lobbying efforts, including over $100,000 on lobbying designated as “grassroots.” Though more recent tax documents are not available to show its spending, the organization’s revenue increased in 2020, showing the pandemic did not halt its momentum.
The local influence of the Mass. Family Institute became apparent at Rochester’s Republican Town Committee when Fernandes, the elementary school board member, brought up the organization multiple times. “Joe [Pires] and I got training on door-to-door campaigning … from the Mass. Family Institute,” she said, and later offered the organization as a potential legal adviser for future complaints against ORR administrators.
Fernandes, a former educator who is also up for re-election in May, has been a leading local voice against progressive sex education and social-emotional learning (“I don’t go along with the ‘whole child’ philosophy,” she has said).
And while book bans have been a heated topic of discussion in Rochester and the tri-town area for months, the issue has bubbled up in Dartmouth, where next week two School Committee seats are the only contested races in the town elections.
Information on upcoming school committee elections
- Freetown town election is Monday, April 3.
- Fairhaven town election is Monday, April 3
- Dartmouth town election is Tuesday, April 4.
- Westport town election is Tuesday, April 11
- Marion town election is Friday, May 12
- Acushnet town election is Saturday, May 13
- Mattapoisett town election is Tuesday, May 16
Rochester town election is Wednesday, May 24
In a March 15 WBSM radio interview, Lynne Turner, one of the five Dartmouth candidates, introduced her bid for the School Committee by saying she was against “political bias” being taught in schools. She was asked to elaborate, including what she thought of banning books.
“I do not appreciate the word banning, I think we need to start looking at it outside that word,” she responded, and said the word “discretion” was more apt. “There’s books on all kinds of different topics, and we need to have good discretion on what’s available in our public school setting,” she said.
“Honestly I haven’t been in the libraries to find out what we have,” Turner said when asked about which books needed review. She continued, “But that gets to my point about transparency. We need to know what’s in the library and weigh in on what’s in them.”
Other School Committee members and candidates have since pointed out that parents have always been able to inquire about what books are in the library and, if they choose, ask that certain books not be loaned to their own children.
Still, that exchange led to a line of questioning at last week’s ‘Meet the Candidates Forum’ in Dartmouth, where School Committee candidates were asked about book bans and if they trusted librarians to determine what’s available in school libraries.
By then Turner’s stance had solidified: “There are books that are concerning to people, mostly of a sexual nature, that are in our school libraries these days,” she said. “We need to look hard at that situation,” and added, “we can weigh in on them as taxpayers and parents.”
Another candidate, Erica Morency, entertained the removal of books. “Do I fully trust the librarians? I don’t know the librarians,” she said. “I can’t say I trust whatever she’s going to pick. I don’t know her to trust her.” Morency added that an example of something inappropriate could be a “sexually explicit novel.”
The conversation over books and school libraries has come to dominate much of the debate and interest in these elections, despite other urgent challenges.
Mary Waite, the Dartmouth School Committee member not seeking re-election for personal family reasons, described a “fiscal cliff” in the district. She said the district used federal funds made available during the pandemic to hire social workers and support staff. That — coupled with virtually no state funding increase in Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed budget — means Dartmouth will not be able to retain several positions or rehire after retirements, which already have included one elementary teacher, an instructional coach, and a technology specialist.
“Class sizes will certainly increase,” Waite said. Not to mention that Dartmouth teachers are already working with an expired contract, as disagreements couldn’t be resolved over the rising costs of health insurance, she added.
Waite, now an outsider after having attended her last School Committee meeting as a member, said she sees politics, especially issues inflammatory to local conservative voters, such as book bans and parent choice in the curriculum, as having undue influence in the race to fill her seat. “To me, school committee candidates talking about curriculum and having a voice in that is a red flag. We are limited to policy, hiring and firing, and evaluating superintendents. Reaching into curriculum is not our purview.”
Waite says another bait issue is the school mascot. “People are still invoking the Indian, and running basically on keeping the Indian,” she said in reference to last year’s debate, in which Dartmouth residents voted overwhelmingly to keep their mascot.
Turner, however, has an entire section of her website dedicated to last year’s issue, writing, “I will continue to promote the use of our name & symbol, as well as, the pride and respect our local history deserves.” And Morency posted about it on Facebook this week: “A vote for Erica on April 4th, will ensure the Indian logo remains.”
Neither Morency or Turner agreed to be interviewed for this article, with Morency not responding to outreach and Turner saying she was too busy.
Why the sudden attention on library books?
At Old Rochester, the issue of book bans arrived in September, when the ORR School Committee received a complaint about nine books in its library, though that complaint was quickly rescinded. By January, the community was still buzzing, though no official complaint remained, so ORR School Committee member Matthew Monteiro filed a motion for review himself, in what he said was a quest for “transparency.”
His list totaled 10 books and included the most common titles in ban requests across the country: classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” newer novels like Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” and Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel “Gender Queer.”
In particular, the last of these books, “Gender Queer,” has caused some parents to describe their stance as “removing pornography,” as the illustrated memoir recounts the author’s struggle to discern their own gender identity and sexual preferences, which includes sections where the author (as a teenager) gets their period, poses questions about masturbation, and fantasizes and worries about sexual encounters.
At this month’s ORR School Committee meeting, Monteiro read a lengthy, prepared statement to announce that all 10 books were reviewed and approved.
It read, in part: “I do not agree that these books are obscene or problematic, and I support the representation of marginalized communities, but my opinions are those of one individual. It is time that these books [went] through the process of review so that all can be satisfied that they have been evaluated and people’s concerns can be addressed.”
While book bans have won lots of public attention, surveys of voters by the American Library Association show that they’re deeply unpopular, with majorities of Democrats (75%), independents (58%), and Republicans (70%) opposed to removing books. That survey found that “most voters and parents hold librarians in high regard, have confidence in their local libraries to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections, and agree that libraries in their communities do a good job offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints.”
That doesn’t seem to have slowed the wave of record-setting book ban requests that targeted 2,571 unique titles last year, the majority of which were books by or about LGBTQ people and people of color, according to the New York Times. Recently, these have resulted in petitions to remove a PG-rated civil rights movie in Florida and even a protest ban of the Bible in Utah.
For the books in ORR, the review process went through a standards committee, which included the high school’s librarian and principal and a School Committee member (but not Monteiro). After that committee approved the books, Monteiro asked Superintendent Mike Nelson to independently review all the books again, a step not required in the process; and Nelson re-approved them all.
In addition, Monteiro gave a suggestion to parents who were still concerned. “Importantly, parental choice is upheld with the option of restricting one’s own child from having access to the book with a simple request.”
Some remained unsatisfied. Joe Pires, the ORR committee member sympathetic to removing these books, sat only a few chairs away. He reacted negatively to Monteiro’s statement during the meeting by saying, “Sorry, the majority does not feel the way Matt Monteiro feels.”
Another community member, Kathleen LeClair, wrote to The Light to share her opinion that “the book review process was a sham.” Though there was no official complaint previous to Monteiro’s, LeClair repeated a claim that “the administration and committee collaborated to purposely stonewall anyone filing a complaint,” and that the committee likely had pre-determined the outcomes.
Monteiro was asked about these sorts of reactions, which have persisted since he read his statement. He said, “Attempting to clear things up seems to have spurred more confusion and accusations than it cleared up.” He said he wondered if making any sort of public comment again would “cause more harm than good.”
“Saying anything creates the risk that anything will be taken in the worst possible way, and this is from both sides,” he said. “Misinterpretation has been significant and unfortunately there has been a lot of divisiveness, anger and confusion.”
Impact on students
This anger among parents and candidates has churned on without significant regard for the impact it’s having on youth, according to students and advocates.
One student at ORR, Alia Cusolito, addressed the School Committee in February, saying, “Everyone has been talking about students rather than with us.”
Liz DiCarlo, a retired nurse from Mattapoisett who worked in public health during the AIDS crisis, said candidates and residents need to be careful that “hate speech doesn’t get promulgated in the community,” which she said leads to violence.
Research supports that there are significant risks to not accepting young people who explore their gender identity and sexuality: 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, according to research in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Further research at The Trevor Project finds that this risk of depression and suicide comes from higher rates of discrimination and bullying, and that those rates are higher for people of color. The Trevor Project also offers resources to help parents and children.
Attempts to limit information on gender identity and sexuality date back to the world’s first transgender clinic, which was ransacked in Berlin 90 years ago. As described in the Scientific American, much of the world’s knowledge on the subject was destroyed: “a towerlike bonfire engulfed more than 20,000 books, some of them rare copies that had helped provide a historiography for nonconforming people.”
Yet even some school committee candidates motivated by opposition to books about LGBTQ experiences are saying they do not discriminate against these people. David Pierre, an ORR parent and middle school math teacher in New Bedford, decided to run for the Mattapoisett School Committee (the board that oversees the town’s two elementary school) after speaking out against the book “Gender Queer.”
“The issue was definitely a motivator,” Pierre said in an email. “Up until recently, I never imagined that school leaders would assign a book to my daughter that had a sexually charged passage about the main character masturbating.”
He continued: “I don’t hate anybody, and the objection to these books has nothing to do with homophobia, transphobia, racism, or any other form of hate. This is about respecting the wishes of most parents.”
However, most of these books have been in the ORR school library for years without a single student complaint. “The Bluest Eye” has been in the library since at least 2008, the longest of all the books, and “Gender Queer” since 2020.
Through everything, Monteiro said he’s found an unlikely silver lining in that more people are paying attention to the School Committee: “They’re starting to understand how the budget gets passed and how we set things into motion.”
“There are a lot of really good things that the school system is doing, and we’re really working hard to get some good things done,” he said.
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