WESTPORT — Not many people go to the School Committee meetings in this coastal town — any more than a handful is unusual. But this month, more than a dozen parents and community members came to support Matthew Shivers, the English teacher placed on leave after a parent complained that the veteran instructor had read aloud from a Margaret Atwood story.

“There will be a chilling effect on the teachers,” complained Carolina Africano, a parent and former School Committee member, during the public comment. “That is not an atmosphere that supports teaching and learning.”

The superintendent, Thomas Aubin, asked parents for patience and deferred to his legal counsel. “I find myself in the midst of a highly charged national issue regarding the choice of curricula for our public school system,” Aubin said. “Certainly, the issue has unfortunately taken on political overtones with strongly held opinions on both sides.”

Africano, the former committee member, said, “I’m disappointed that the administration did not back their people.”

The increasingly familiar ordeal is just one among a surging number of complaints and challenges to literature in Massachusetts schools and libraries. Last year, the state  experienced the fourth-highest number of library book removal requests — 45. That’s more than in Florida or California, according to data from the American Library Association (Texas had the most, with 93). This year, book challenges have also returned to Old Rochester Regional, the district where the issue drove the last cycle of school committee elections. 


Librarian groups warn that many schools are losing staff and funding for libraries. In response, new legislation in the Statehouse seeks to protect librarians.

In Massachusetts last year, book challenges quadrupled since the prior year, according to ALA’s count. These outnumber all cases from 2013 to 2021 combined. 

“It’s very stressful,” said Jennifer Varney, former president of the Massachusetts School Library Association. “I got my master’s in library science and learned about intellectual freedom. But that was a theoretical thing until last year, when it wasn’t theoretical anymore.”

Varney said the number of book challenges (in Massachusetts and all states) is likely an undercount. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ own survey of librarians, she said, came up with 78 challenges, which include informal and verbal requests to remove titles.

In Westport, the offending short story, “Happy Endings,” has been part of Shivers’ curriculum for high school sophomores for at least six years, according to students interviewed by The Light. The story was penned by the celebrated author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the classic novel that forebodes theocratic repression, especially of women and non-conformist thinkers. 

The parent’s complaint, according to news reports, focused on a passage that describes a relationship in which partners unequally exchange lust and love. This leads the involved woman to intentional self-harm and accidental overdose. Also, a curse word describes intercourse.

“It was traumatizing thinking that this is actually going on in a school,” the parent told CBS News Boston. “Something like that, sexually, should be taught in [the] home, not at school.” The parent could not be reached for additional comment by The Light. 

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Former students of Shivers rallied to his support. Emmie Young-Kershaw, a Westport High graduate now studying at Emerson College, described her former English teacher and drama director as “one of the most hardworking, kindest, smartest people to ever grace Westport.”

Young-Kershaw wasn’t shocked about book challenges arriving in her hometown: “I’m not surprised it would come to Westport, but I am surprised at who it came to,” she said. “When [Shivers] would begin a book, he would always talk about what would be discussed in the book … he always provided a safe space.”

Young-Kershaw helped to circulate an online letter that defended Shivers. Written by  another young alumna, the letter gained more than 200 signatures from former and current students. “Honest, dedicated, and highly professional,” it described Shivers, while defending intellectual freedom.

“Speaking our minds and standing up for what we believe in is not just a privilege we have as Americans, but a right and an obligation to our conscience and morality,” read one section. “This letter is an execution of that life lesson. We understand how parents may be startled by the starkness of some literature, but we urge you to consider that this is the purpose of literary fiction.”

Proposed legislation would support librarians

State Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro has submitted legislation that would formalize school librarians as the final arbiters of which books end up in their libraries. The bill would create a review process to ensure books aren’t hastily removed when challenges arise. 

At present, librarians and teachers follow whatever policy their school has written, if there is one. 

“We cannot allow small-minded bans or politically opportunist censorship to interfere with the right to read,” said Cyr in a written statement. “Massachusetts is home to the nation’s first public library and the first public school … [and] access to knowledge is key to opportunity and fulfillment.”

“I thought about sending him flowers,” said Barb Fecteau, current president of the Massachusetts School Library Association. “We’re putting our line in the sand.”

Westport has no existing process for dealing with book challenges, the superintendent made clear at this month’s School Committee meeting. “The school district’s legal counsel is consulting with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has extensive knowledge of best instructional practices for the age group in question,” Aubin said. 

In the meantime, Matthew Shivers cannot teach and remains on professional leave. 

Meanwhile, the Old Rochester district, well-versed in handling book challenges, recently received another. The Light has covered how book challenges came to dominate the school committee elections there, after a book complaint sparked public ire in November 2022. 

In June, a resident submitted a request to remove two books from the high school library. “At the time of submission, I did not read the entire book, but did end up reading the book prior to meeting with the Standards committee,” the resident said in a written statement. “I read certain pages and the summary.” She wrote that she was also aware of criticism of the book by booklooks.org, an extension of the conservative group Moms For Liberty.

The complainant, Karen Thomas, also spoke publicly before the Old Rochester School Committee to oppose critical race theory, a legal theory not taught in K-12 education that has been a talking point of many conservative education critics: “I feel that there needs to be steps that critical race theory and comprehensive sex education do not take root in education or curriculum.” 

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Complaints about “critical race theory” and “sex education,” regardless of whether they’re actually taught, follow a trend, librarian groups say, in which book challenges have disproportionately targeted authors of color or those who identify as LGBTQ. “The underlying thing is about race and gender,” said Fecteau, of the school library association. 

As with previous challenges, Old Rochester’s Standards Committee met to discuss the books and apply its 10-criteria rubric for appropriateness. The group, composed of a teacher, librarian, principal, district administrator, and School Committee member, unanimously found both challenged books to meet each of its 10 criteria for appropriateness.

For one title, the committee wrote that the book “falls within the developmentally appropriate age group [for high schoolers] because it provides representation of a transgender individual [of the same age] … and explores their own identity just as all adolescents explore their identities.” The decision went on to say that “although the main character may not live a traditional lifestyle it does not mean the book is advocating for disrespect to parents or for children to reject a traditional lifestyle.”

The complainant appealed the decision to the superintendent, but lost. 

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Massachusetts chapter has endorsed Sen. Cyr’s proposed legislation. “It’s important to have guidelines and clear rules and a clear process if any book is challenged,” said Laura Rótolo, field director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “That’s exactly what this bill does.”

However, there’s a reason why many schools are less prepared to deal with these challenges than others. “There are a lot of schools that don’t have school librarians and there are parent volunteers who are buying all the books,” said Barb Fecteau.

The real problem? School librarians are disappearing

Amid this backdrop of challenges to books in classrooms, libraries, and curricula, there is a less flashy threat: school librarians are slowly disappearing. 

“In New Bedford, I’m the only school librarian in the district,” said Madelene Pimentel, who has seen funding declines here and in Fall River, where she once worked.

Disinvestment and book challenges are “two sides of the same coin,” said Pimentel, and together they constitute something that feels like a “systematic attack on library programs.” But she concluded that the funding issue was more urgent: “For me the bigger concern is access to school libraries.” 

None of New Bedford’s 20 elementary schools has a single dedicated librarian. The three middle schools, which serve almost 3,000 adolescents, also employ no librarians.  

Nearby Fairhaven let go of its sole middle school librarian in 2013 and has gone without a high school librarian for at least two years, according to Laura Gardner, the librarian at Dartmouth Middle who ran for Fairhaven School Committee earlier this year.

Many schools across the state no longer have librarians either, said Fecteau, of the Massachusetts School Library Association. Less than half of Commonwealth schools, 44%, she said, have a membership with Mass Library Systems — a very common organization for librarians to join. 

“This is a terribly depressing number for me,” Fecteau said. 

Pssst! Got an important news tip? Contact us confidentially at TIPS@newbedfordlight.org.

Beyond maintaining a library, school librarians normally would assist teachers with lesson plans, teach classes on news and media literacy, and assist with basic research skills. Without them, educators say, students’ reading, research skills, and love of learning can suffer. “They’re missing out on essential research and media literacy skills,” said Pimentel, the New Bedford librarian.

Access to a school library can greatly improve academic achievement and graduation rates, according to oft-cited research reviews. And they are often popular among students and teachers for the new material or creative projects they can bring to classrooms. 

“It’s very difficult for a school district to have a culture of reading without elementary school librarians,” said Fecteau. 

School librarians, Fecteau added, are also the best ally for parents who have questions about the books in schools. 

“If you are concerned about what your child is being exposed to, 100% come talk to us. School librarians want parents to talk to their kids about what they’re reading,” she said.

“What we’re not for is for people … [making] decisions for other people’s children.”

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article and overview of a troubling trend affecting Southcoast’s public schools. This parent of a student in Mr. Shivers class is troubled by the inability of Superintendent and School Committee to resolve this in a timely manner. I find it is ironic that it only took them two days to make the unprecedented decision to place the teacher on paid suspension but over two weeks later that teacher is still missing from the classroom while my son and his classmates are being taught but substitutes rather than by a seasoned well respected educator.

    Memo to school administration; residents are paying attention and many of us are not happy with this display of arrogance and incompetance.

    1. It is outrageous for one parent to dictate to the parents and students of an entire classroom or school what is or is not acceptable or appropriate for high-school sophomores to read and discuss. As Craig Dutra points out, this complaint has deprived his son and other students for more than two weeks of the benefit of having an experienced teacher they know and apparently respect.

      What is more outrageous is that this teacher was not simply told to stop using this material while it was being reviewed, but according to the NBL article, he was put on administrative leave without warning for doing something he had done for six years without prior complaint. The question is not simply whether the passage should or should not continue to be used, with or without prior notice to parents or students, the question is how this school and district could so badly trample due process and fairness in dealing with this teacher. Where is his union in this likely breach of their contract?

  2. Since NBL is continuing the gaslighting seen throughout the country, I will quote one of the problematic paragraphs in this story: “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary. He merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind. He comes to her apartment twice a week and she cooks him dinner, you’ll notice that he doesn’t even consider her worth the price of a dinner out, and after he’s eaten the dinner he f@#$s her and after that he falls asleep, while she does the dishes so he won’t think she’s untidy, having all those dirty dishes lying around, and puts on fresh lipstick so she’ll look good when he wakes up, but when he wakes up he doesn’t even notice, he puts on his socks and his shorts and his pants and his shirt and his tie and his shoes, the reverse order from the one in which he took them off, he doesn’t take off Mary’s clothes, she takes them off herself, she acts as if she’s dying for it every time, not because she likes sex exactly, she doesn’t, but she wants John to think she does because if they do it often enough surely he’ll get used to her, he’ll come to depend on her and they will get married, but John goes out the door with hardly so much as a good-night and three days later he turns up at six o’clock and they do the whole thing over.
    Mary gets run-down. Crying is bad for your face, everyone knows that and so does Mary but she can’t stop. People at work notice. Her friends tell her John is a rat, a pig, a dog, he isn’t good enough for her but she can’t believe it. Inside John, she thinks, is another John, who is much nicer. This other John will emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon, a Jack from a box, a pit from a prune, if the first John is only squeezed enough.
    One evening John complains about the food. He has never complained about the food before. Mary is hurt.
    Her friends tell her they’ve seen him in a restaurant with another woman, whose name is Madge. It’s not even Madge that finally gets to Mary; it’s the restaurant. John has never taken Mary to a restaurant. Mary collects all the sleeping pills and aspirins she can find, and takes them and a half a bottle of sherry. You can see what kind of woman she is by the fact that it’s not even whiskey. She leaves a note for John. She hopes he’ll discover her and get her to the hospital in time and repent and then they can get married, but this fails to happen and she dies.”
    This theme is not appropriate for 15-16 years olds. As you can see in this online quote the swear word is changed, that’s because it’s not appropriate. The least you could do as a journalist is to provide the context to which the parents are objecting. “The parent’s complaint, according to news reports, focused on a passage that describes a relationship in which partners unequally exchange lust and love. This leads the involved woman to intentional self-harm and accidental overdose. Also, a curse word describes intercourse.” This description does not quite cut that request. Children, yes 15 and 16 year olds are still minors, have no idea about what real relationships are and this essay describes adult relationships which are inappropriate to minors. With the plethora of appropriate essays that can captivate, the judgment of this teacher must come into play when dealing with this issue.

    1. I would just comment back to you that you may be a bit hypocritical in your comment as you chose to quote only a portion of the story that you found to be an issue and not the entire story for complete context. This is one passage in a short story with a variety of scenarios. If you want everyone to tell the whole “story” you should tell the whole story too… my personal opinion is these are high schoolers and they are not too young to understand at all.. I want my children informed.. intelligence in all aspects of life is key. Knowlege is power.

  3. I am shocked and feel ignorant about the lack of school librarians throughout the district. To suspend a teacher over one parent’s obsession is destructive to the intellectual culture of education.

    1. Gaslighting is repeating a falsehood over and over again to make the hearer accept it as true or at least to doubt their own ability to discern the truth. Reading the passage quoted by Anonymous and the description of that passage by the NBL makes clear that the NBL accurately if antiseptically described the passage.

      While adolescents may be more sexually active than when I was in high school sixty years ago, I can assure Anonymous anyone in junior high school has heard the offending word and almost all of them understand its meaning in this context. The author uses it because it accurately describes John’s actions. He was not “making love”. He was f*&%ing this woman in more ways than physically. The exploitative use of another person and the damage it can do is exactly what high-school students need to learn to recognize and with the guidance of a practiced teacher to talk about and learn to express in their own writing.

      1. The preceding comment was intended as a response to Anonymous but mistakenly posted as a response to Ghristy LaGur with whom I agree.

  4. The book banners and thought controllers are crawling out of the woodwork sadly in Westport enabled by a school board bowing to pressure from a vicious and vocal MINORITY and turning the victim the teacher into a criminal.These book banners would have banned Huck Finn bcuz Twain taught equality Thoreau bcuz he emphasized non conformity and no doubt Harry Potter who opened the eyes of millions of kids to the magic of reading and fantasy Atwoods Handmaidens tale warns us,what Theocracy like that in Iran can do or those in our own country who would,erase equal rights for us,all Books open your childs,eyes to the world 🌎 if you choose to not do that its your loss but don’t impose it on the,rest of us .It’s unacceptable and we’re not having it!When elections come up think about who defended the teacher and,was,ready 🤔 to throw him to the wolves and vote accordingly!

  5. I am totally shocked at the lack of librarians in SouthCoast schools. Who is running the school libraries, ordering the books, helping the kids with library based issues. Hope it is not untrained volunteers. Our priorities are hopelessly messed up. Sickening!

  6. They should change the parameters of ” librarians” if they want to keep them. It is an antiquated title for an antiquated form. There is no need for the library of old. Either dump it or use your ever grinding left sided ” brains” to find a new use of the space. The library of old should be reformed into the arts as a whole. Use whatever funding to expand or refresh any number of the arts. A new stage wouldn’t hurt. Why all the new facades? It is like us as Americans, all show and no go. All shine and no substance. You lefties claim to care about the ” Insides”, carry that to physical places also.

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