The Superintendent’s Review Committee, meeting Monday in Town Hall, put final touches on its recommendation that three books challenged by a Westport parent remain in the Staples High School Library. / Photo by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — For the second time in as many weeks, a committee reviewing three books — whose removal from the Staples High School library was sought by a local parent — voted unanimously Monday to recommend the books remain in the library.

The latest vote by the Superintendent’s Review Committee forwards its recommendation to Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice, who has 10 days to render a decision. 

His decision then can be appealed to the full Board of Education within 30 days, depending on the outcome, by either Tara McLaughlin, the mother of three who filed the challenge, or by educators who want the books to remain in the library.

Three “challenged” books in the Staples High School library, which the Superintendent’s Review Committee recommends remain in the collection, include from left: “Flamer” by Mike Curato, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson.

The three books at the center of the controversy  — “Flamer” by Mike Curato, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson — were among those featured in a “Banned Books” display at the Staples library last September.

During a school board meeting in October, the books drew fire from parents who labeled them inappropriate and too explicit, among other criticisms.

McLaughlin subsequently filed a challenge, under rarely used school board policy, seeking to have three of the books removed from the high school library.

At the review committee’s first hearing March 22, she called the books “pornographic” and “vulgar,” citing references to homosexuality and transgender sexuality, in an hour-long presentation. 

The second step in the process was for committee members to discuss among themselves reasons to keep or reject the books in an April 3 meeting, where the 10-member panel voted unanimously to keep the three books in the library.

The purpose of the review committee’s third meeting Monday in Town Hall was to put a final seal of approval on its recommendation that the library be allowed to keep the books in its collection, and to consider a few modifications to the document, written by Anthony Buono, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, based on the committee’s research and discussion.

Among the changes made to the final document was a note about McLaughlin’s use of two different last names during the review process. Although in most of the recent paperwork she called herself “McLaughlin,” in earlier emails and the original complaint she referred to herself as Tara “Tesoriero.”

The committee decided to add a footnote about the complainant’s use of two different names near the beginning of its document to avoid confusion.

Another decision made by the committee was to include as complete a record of the proceedings as possible by attaching the original complaints about the books and the committee’s response to the complaints with its final document.

“We want to be very clear on what was considered and what was discussed,” said committee member Kelly Zatorsky, a Bedford Middle School library media specialist. The documents will serve as a template “if we ever have to go through this again.”

The committee’s final written recommendation outlined several reasons for its decision to keep all three challenged books in the library, including that they:

  • have age-appropriate content.
  • include content “within the scope of the health curriculum at Staples High School.”
  • have been reviewed and recommended by the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.
  • have received a number of literary awards “from reputable organizations,” including the American Library Association, “Kirkus Reviews,” “Booklist,” the Nutmeg Book Awards and the “School Library Journal.”
  • had been considered for inclusion in the Staples library by staff who followed procedures outlined in Board of Education policies.

The committee’s recommendation also states “all three books have educational value” and “removal of the challenged books would stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community and send a message that LGBTQ+ students are not valued and welcome members of the school community.”

After the vote, Elaine Whitney, the committee chairwoman, thanked the other nine members for their hard work and “for taking into consideration the well-being of our students.”

Committee member Dave Willick, a Staples social studies teacher, thanked the community at large for support in the face of threats and negative comments made on social media and elsewhere targeting the district’s teachers and administrators.

“We’re very fortunate here,” Whitney said, closing the meeting. “We had a great team [on the committee] and a great community.”

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.