Alma Sarelli, left, a candidate for the state legislature this November, and Bari Reiner were among several speakers at Monday’s Board of Education meeting who criticized the “Banned Books Week” display at Staples High School. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck
Board of Education members Robert Harrington, far left, and Neil Phillips, right, argue over the full board’s refusal to publicly discuss complaints about the banned books display at Staples High School last month. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The Board of Education refused Monday to publicly discuss a “banned books” display in the Staples High School library that several members of the public charge was inappropriate and dangerous.

Part of an annual recognition of the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week,” the late-September display included the 10 books the group said were the most challenged nationally over the past year.

 Among the titles were: “Gender Queer,” “Lawn Boy” and “This Book is Gay.”

All 10 books in the display are already part of the high school library’s collection and have been for some time. They remain among the library’s 23,779 print books.

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice told the board in a lengthy memo dated Sept. 29 that he received nine to 10 formal challenges to books in the display.

Under board policy, there is a complaint procedure for handling objections to instructional materials.

 Ultimate responsibility rests with the board.

The display for “Banned Books Week” assembled at the Staples High School library last month. / Contributed photo

On Monday, before the public meeting, the board held a closed-door session with its attorney to get advice on the matter.

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said the discussion centered on the legal framework surrounding the complaint policy and process. The books themselves were not discussed, Goldstein said.

Board member Robert Harrington, however, said at the start of the public meeting that some of the conversation during the executive session made him uncomfortable.

“Board members began expressing opinions,” he said, “what I thought was a totally inappropriate use of an executive session.”

Harrington pushed for the board discussion to continue in public.

So did board member Dorie Hordon, who said the board can’t perform its chief responsibility of oversight without an open community discussion.

Brian McGunagle, founder of Westport Pride, defended the Staples banned books display, saying it helped students understand different lifestyles. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

“This is not [about] banning books,” Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer said, adding the board is clearly divided on the issue.

Heyer called for an item to be added to Monday’s meeting agenda to discuss the treatment of instructional materials that may go against board policies. It would have taken five members voting in favor to add the discussion.

Three members — Heyer, Harrington and Hordon, all Republicans — voted in favor of the motion. Goldstein, Neil Phillips, Kevin Christie and Christina Torres, all Democrats, voted no.

Goldstein said later it would have been premature to have a board discussion while a complaint and review are underway.

“We are following a process,” she said.

The process, according to board policy, includes seeking resolution of the issue through a series of discussions with school officials and those filing the complaints. Then, a review committee, if necessary, would make recommendations to the superintendent, and potentially, the school board.

Complaints: Sexualizing children, indoctrination, Marxist

“This should not be material on prominent display in the school library,” Alma Sarelli, a Westport parent and Republican candidate this year in the 136th House District, told the board during Monday’s public comment session.

Sarelli said she is among many members of the community concerned that some of the books in the display have explicit images and offer advice on how to have sex and find sexual partners online.

“Many people today seem to want to sexualize our children,” said Sarelli, an unsuccessful independent candidate for the school board last year. She urged the board to engage with the community on the issue.

Bari Reiner, a Westport resident, questioned the legality of giving access to some of the books to children under 18 years old.

“Schools are supposed to be safe, nurturing places to learn,” said Tara Tesonero, another resident. The books chosen for display, she said, share a common theme of sex. Some are graphic in nature and appear to conflict with a user’s agreement students must sign to use district devices.

Camilo Riano, a parent with four children in the school system, asked the board when they were going to stop grooming children.

“The heinous promotion of pornographic books at Staples High School, under the guise of opposing censorship, is not an isolated event,” Riano said. “It is the latest in a series of [efforts] to target our children.”

Antje Bakalov called the situation indoctrination that goes beyond a display that not only exposes students to certain books, but challenges them to read them.

“It is creating tension in my family,” she said, adding that as someone who grew up in a socialist country, she recognizes Marxist doctrine when she sees it.

Defense: Understanding differences, public schools targeted

In support of the display, Brian McGunagle, president of Westport Pride, a LGBTQ community organization, told the school board he stands in solidarity with teachers, staff and students at Staples.

“It is important for students to be exposed to different lifestyles and ways of life,” he said.

Danielle Teplica, another parent, said the banned books display is not new.

What is new is the pattern across the nation targeting such issues as a way to hurt public schools, she said.

Scarice told the board that books in this year’s library display were purchased between 2008 and 2019. Exhibited by their covers, the books also could be browsed by those interested. The texts have since been re-shelved.

The Staples library has recognized Banned Books Week with a display since 2005. The 2021 display had focused mostly on racial issues.

None of this year’s 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 in his memo.

The last formal challenge to the school district’s reading material was in 2007, when the book “Lovely Bones” was questioned.

If any action were to be taken against the books now in question, Scarice said there are several other titles, not currently being discussed but of similar nature, that would also warrant review.

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.