By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Gender Queer

Great Barrington teacher sues town, school district and police over classroom search

Photo (cc) 2022 by John Ramspott

When we handed out a New England Muzzle Award last December in connection with a needless middle school controversy over the book “Gender Queer,” we had to settle for anonymity: it wasn’t clear who had contacted the Great Barrington Police Department to complain that they’d found a copy in a classroom at the W.E.B. DuBois Middle School.

Well, now we have a candidate. According to a federal lawsuit filed by eighth-grade English teacher Arantzazú Zuzene Galdós-Shapiro, the complaints were filed by a “disgruntled homophobic Middle School janitor,” which led to a search of her classroom. The janitor is not named in the suit, but a report commissioned by school officials identified him as Adam Yorke and said he was no longer employed by the school district, according to a Feb. 24 article by Berkshire Eagle reporter Heather Bellow. We invite Yorke to contact us so that he can make arrangements to pick up his prize.

News of the lawsuit was broken earlier this week by Bellow, who’s been following this story from the beginning. The Boston Globe’s John R. Ellement picked up on it as well.

According to the lawsuit, Yorke may have instigated the incident, but others are far from blameless. The suit also names the town, the school district, Police Chief Paul Storti, Police Officer Joseph O’Brien and School Superintendent Peter Dillon. As Bellow reports, “Yorke had accused Galdós-Shapiro of letting a student sit on her lap and to keep information from parents. He also had provided police with photos of some content of the book that shows the explicit sexual images.” Bellow adds:

A criminal investigation was quickly dismissed after Storti and Dillon and the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office determined that the book was not “pornographic,” and after Yorke was revealed to have an “axe to grind” against the district. But the allegations “left her devastated and profoundly shaken, ill, distressed, and fearful, her reputation publicly destroyed,” the court document says.

Among other allegations against the school district, the teacher said Dillon “knew well and failed to follow the established process for challenging classroom content.”

In other words, Galdós-Shapiro alleges that the defendants backed off only after trampling on her rights. That happened, she charges, because she had been singled out as “a queer Mexican-American.”

“Gender Queer” is an illustrated book by Maia Kobabe that aimed at kids who are questioning their sexuality and that is among the country’s most frequently banned books.

Note: My original post in December mistakenly said that “Gender Queer” had been found in the school library rather than in a classroom. I’ve gone back and corrected that post.

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A Muzzle Award for the anonymous troll who reported ‘Gender Queer’ to the police

Photo (cc) 1928 by Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies

There’s an unidentified person somewhere out there who has richly earned a New England Muzzle Award, and I hope they’ll step forward to claim their trophy. Because this censorious busybody, hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, actually called the Great Barrington Police Department recently to complain that a middle school classroom had a copy of the notorious-though-it-shouldn’t-be book “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, on its shelves.

The oft-banned book, which includes graphic images, is used by a number of educators as a resource for young people who are questioning their sexuality. At the W.E.B. DuBois Middle School, though, a police officer actually showed up after school hours and, accompanied by the principal, paid a visit to the classroom so he could see for himself. According to Heather Bellow of The Berkshire Eagle, the officer actually turned on his body camera before beginning his search. “The officer then searched for the book and planned to remove the book as part of the investigation,” Bellow reports, but he couldn’t locate it and ended up leaving. (Bellow also wrote the initial story about the incident.)

Now, you may ask why the police department in this Western Massachusetts town isn’t being awarded a Muzzle. The reason is that it’s not clear they did anything wrong. The person who called the police department sent images that they claimed were from an obscene book. Obscenity, a tiny subset of indecent material, is actually illegal. It can be hard to define (the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once memorably said, “I know it when I see it”), but you can imagine that it’s pretty bad given that nearly all indecency is protected by the First Amendment. To be clear: “Gender Queer” doesn’t come within a mile of violating any obscenity laws. But Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti told Adam Reilly of GBH News that his officers were obliged to respond to what may have been a legitimate complaint. Reilly quoted Storti as saying:

The interaction with the teacher was cordial. The officer didn’t touch anything. They didn’t search. They basically asked if the book was still there, to give the context of what we were dealing with dealing with. The teacher said the book wasn’t there, and the officer left.

I’ll grant you that Storti’s comments are at odds with the Eagle’s report that the officer “searched for the book,” but I’ll have to leave that unresolved for now. The larger issue is that a member of the community saw fit to mobilize law enforcement because of the possible presence of a much-praised book.

The fallout has been significant. The ACLU is seeking the body-camera footage. More than 100 students and staff walked out of Monument Regional High School to protest the attempt at censorship, earning praise from Gov. Maura Healey, who said, “Book banning has no place in Massachusetts.” And the Eagle ran a letter to the editor today that said in part, “Let’s make the book recommended reading for all middle school parents and faculty, and then organize a public forum to discuss the book.”

Although the Great Barrington Police Department has avoided the ignominy of receiving a Muzzle Award, Chief Storti and Berkshire District Attorney Timothy Shugrue, whose office also got involved, need to engage in some discussion and training about what to do the next time something like this happens. Because we all know that it will.

Correction, May 17, 2024: This post originally said that the search took place in the school library. In fact, it was in a classroom.

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