DEARBORN — A Dearborn Public Schools Board of Education meeting commenced on Thursday after being shut down on Monday when protesters against certain books in the district’s libraries packed the room and the meeting descended into chaos and confusion.
The books, which have been pulled off the shelf pending review for weeks, largely concern LGBTQ+ issues and have candid and sometime illustrated discussions on sexuality.
On Monday, with local and national media later taking note, protesters booed calls to clear out the room to follow fire safety concerns, even those conveyed by protest organizers. Board trustees and the organizers asked that many of those not planning to submit public comments leave the packed room to bring it back within the fire code limits, to no avail.
The crowd also objected to the boards three-minute rule during public comment, which the board routinely uses. The organizers were unable to contain the raucous crowd, leading the board to take a break for the situation to cool down, before Dearborn Police and Fire personnel asked the trustees to suspend the meeting completely.
To be sure, the books, which were objected to earlier this year by a parent, are currently in the district’s book challenge process. The parent, Stephanie Butler, found the books through a Facebook page called Mary in the Library that posts “naughty children’s books” available in school libraries.
The district has had such a book challenge process in place and is now revising those guidelines and tightening up criteria for book selection, as well as updating procedures for how it handles challenges to those books.
This includes an internal review of the books in questions, which is currently taking place by the district’s media specialists. The district also has an opt-out form for parents to sign to exclude their child from checking out certain materials.
If the parent does not agree with the media specialist’s decision as to whether the books indeed have educational merit and are appropriately allocated according to age, and does not want to sign the opt-out form, the books will then go to a committee made up of educators, parents, an administrator, social worker or school psychologist and a student.
The board itself is not part of that process, nor were the books on the agenda for the meeting this week.
Many protesters are not satisfied by these guidelines and want the board and the district administration to order the books be removed completely.
Trustee Adel Mozip was booed by protesters after he said on Monday that “parents have a choice and they have a voice, and this administration (has) given you that voice.”
Protesters brought a resolution that enforces parental rights in education activities on Monday. Though the district accepts resolutions from individuals and organizations, they are put through a review and verification process that can take months before the board votes on them.
“We encourage our parents to work with the district if they have concerns about the age-appropriateness of particular items in our media centers,” said Superintendent Glenn Maleyko while giving details on how the meeting will be reconvened. “With nearly 500,000 books in our school libraries, it is possible something slipped in that shouldn’t be there, despite our best efforts. The proper procedure to remove books is to bring that title to the attention of the media specialist at your child’s school, so we can begin the Book Challenge process.”
Maleyko said that the district will not promise to remove every book as different parents have different opinions about some materials, but promised to take the time to reevaluate items parents may be concerned about if they reach out to the librarians.
Though some of those opposing the books have repeatedly said their objection isn’t to the LGBTQ+ orientation of the materials and simply to their explicit content, others showed up with signs to last Monday’s meeting calling “homosexual desires” “shameful and “unnatural” and declaring homosexuality a “big sin.”
The district reconvened the meeting on Thursday, opening with the previously postponed public comment period.
Before Thursday, the district said in a press release that a Board of Education meeting is not a town hall or other open forum.
“The purpose of the meeting is to allow the Board to conduct the business of the district,” the release said. “As required, the board plans to take any public comments on action items first, vote on items that need their approval and conduct other business. They will then return to take the majority of the public comments, which appear to be related to how the district selects or retains books in the school media centers.”
The national attention on weeks-long tensions over books in the city no doubt contributed to an ongoing national debate.
In September, the American Library Association (ALA) said that at that point this year, the number of attempts to ban or restrict library resources in schools, universities and public libraries was on track to exceed record counts from 2021.
Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, the ALA documented 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources and 1,651 unique titles were targeted.
No clear end in sight
The protests have embroiled local Democratic cadres, many nervous about the party’s stronghold in Dearborn and Wayne County politics with the November elections around the corner. Protesters at rallies and board meetings and online have expressed disappointment in Democrats from their own communities, even well-loved personalities like Mayor Abdullah Hammoud and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), in not backing their views on social issues. Protesters erupted in “vote them out” chants, though seemingly directed at the board, on Monday.
GOP candidates in the November elections showed up at the Thursday’s meeting to lend support for the book removal efforts.
Thursday’s meeting was moved to a bigger room at Stout Middle School, limited to 600 people in the auditorium. No posters were allowed at the reconvened meeting.
Community members, educators and even people from outside of Dearborn got in line to speak on different sides of the book removal issue. Much like Monday, protestors routinely erupted in boos, applause or angry yelling during an emotional three hours.
Dearborn resident Amro Hizam said the majority of parents were not there to attack anyone.
“We are not here to attack the board, we are not here to attack the LGBT community, and we are not here especially to attack our teachers,” Hizam said. “We cannot allow extremes on both sides to hijack the narrative. We are here to exercise our parental rights, and to hold the board accountable to the highest degree.”
Parents like Hizam say that though they understand their kids are exposed to much worse content on the internet, the school is a controlled educational environment and not a place for explicit sexual expression of any kind.
Rawan Hider of Dearborn, a third year law student said the books under review deal with important and relevant topics like sexual assault (Push and The Lovely Bones), or navigating gender identity and sexuality as a young person that identifies as LGBTQ+ (This Books Is Gay and All Books Aren’t Blue).
“These books have been deemed phonographic, against good Muslim values, or (as) being set out to carry on some sort of homosexual agenda,” Hider said. “Many parents here tonight are under the assumption that the only resolution is to ban them. However, the first amendment is not dead.”
“As strong and as united as this community has proved itself to be, there are still young females amongst us and throughout our own community who are suffering or have suffered at the hands of their abusers,” she added. “And despite the strong religious presence within this community, that does not take away the fact that there are still young adults out here in the Dearborn public school system who are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.”
Hider said that overt displays of homophobia has shown the world that the community has forgotten its own struggle with “hatred, discrimination, prejudice and violence.”
Of course, as the books themselves were not an action item on the agenda, no decision was made, and there is no clear end in sight for the heated debate in the community around school library books.
Thursday’s meeting is available to view on the Dearborn Public Schools YouTube page. A full recording of the Monday meeting is available on The Arab American News Facebook page.