Banned Books Week display at Staples High School
The “Banned Books” display at the Staples High School library, featuring books selected by the American Library Association, provoked harsh criticism from some parents. / File photo

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — A banned books display characterized as inappropriate and dangerous at a Board of Education meeting last fall is finally getting its day in “court.”

The Superintendent’s Review Committee on Challenged Books will meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall.

It is the first time board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein can remember the committee, which reviews challenged materials in the schools, has been convened.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice told the board in the fall the last time school district reading material faced a formal challenge was in 2007 when the book “Lovely Bones” was questioned.

This time, Tara McLaughlin, a Westport resident, is challenging three of the 10 books included in the annual “Banned Books” display in the Staples High School library last September.

At the hearing, McLaughlin will be invited to make a presentation on her concerns about the books. Then Staples librarians Jennifer Cirino and Nicole Moeller are scheduled to explain why the materials should remain in the library.

The books in question include “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson and “Flamer”by Mike Curato.

McLaughlin could not be immediately reached for comment.

The public notice for the session bills it as a special meeting of the school board.

Goldstein, however, said Monday that no members of the board sit on the appointed committee, which has been organized in accordance with a policy adopted in 1976 and modified in 2001.

And although the session is open to the public, it will not be live-streamed or recorded, Goldstein said.

Rarely used procedures to review complaint

According to the school board’s policy, district materials can be formally challenged with a signed complaint, called a “Request for Reconsideration of Materials.”

If the complaint cannot be resolved at the school level it goes to the superintendent’s review committee.

The newly assembled committee includes a member of the superintendent’s staff, the president of the Westport Education Association or designee, the president of the school administrators’ union or designee, no fewer than three classroom teachers, a librarian/media specialist and three citizens appointed by the superintendent.

One of those citizens is Elaine Whitney, a former school board member, who according to the agenda, will give the committee its charge and provide background materials about the challenged books.

The committee then makes a recommendation in writing to the superintendent. Scarice will have 10 days from then to render a decision on the complaint. Either side has 30 days to appeal that decision to the school board.

That’s why in October, Goldstein and a majority of the board, resisted a public discussion on the topic after members of the public came to complain about the Banned Books display. Instead, the board met behind closed doors with its attorney to get advice on the matter.

At the time, Goldstein said it would have been premature to have a board discussion while a review of the complaint was initiated.

The books in question remain on the shelves as part of library’s print collection despite concerns expressed by some parents that they contain explicit images, offer advice on how to have sex and how to find sexual partners online. 

Other parents defended the books as important to expose students to different lifestyles.

None of the books are used as a primary reading text in any class, although “This Book is Gay,” was purchased for a junior health class as optional reading, Scarice told the board last fall.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.