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ACLU sues Independence School District over book removal policy

A red book with yellow lettering is titled "Cats vs. Robots." It sits on three other books and a backpack. Its author is listed as Margaret Stohl.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit over the Independence School District's book removal policy after outcry over the removal of Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War from elementary school libraries.

Parents pushed backed against the Independence School District after it banned a book that includes a non-binary character from its elementary school libraries. Independence's policy is to remove challenged books while they go through a review process.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is suing the Independence School District after its school board banned a book that included a non-binary character.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of several students in the United States District Court in the Western District of Missouri. The lawsuit seeks to stop a policy that automatically removes a book from the district’s libraries after it has been challenged.

Under the district’s policy, the challenged material is removed from use until a committee reviews it and the school board votes on it.

“Students have a first amendment right to access ideas and information in schools,” said Gillian Wilcox, the ACLU of Missouri’s deputy director for litigation. “If that information becomes unavailable because one person, a parent, guardian or student decides for any reason that they don't want that material in the school, and the district then removes it, those rights are being infringed upon.”

The district’s policy states that books and instructional material “shall not be prescribed, nor removed from library shelves or classrooms on the basis of partisan or doctrinal approval or disapproval.”

A spokesperson for the Independence School District said the district will “vigorously” defend itself against the ACLU’s lawsuit.

“The District stands behind its policy, which is thoughtful, well-considered, and calculated to balance and protect the rights of all students and their parents,” she said in an email. “Nearly identical policies are used by numerous public school districts throughout the state, including at least one that withstood a similar legal challenge by the ACLU…It is unfortunate that the District will be required to expend taxpayer funds to defend against the ACLU’s latest unfounded complaint.”

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that Independence’s policy allows a parent or student to trigger a book’s immediate removal if they object to its discussion about sex, sexuality or race – issues that have been particularly politically loaded in recent years.

“It's important for people to remember that school districts reflect a wide variety of students, and that the information and books they have access to should also reflect that diversity,” Wilcox said. “And when you start taking that away, that impacts how your students feel about going to school, and being accepted at school and belonging at school.”

Gibbs.jpg
Jodi Fortino
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KCUR 89.3
Bruce Gibbs told the board he was on the committee that recommended the district remove the book from its elementary libraries. He said the book wasn't appropriate for elementary aged children.

In June, the Independence Board of Education voted to remove the book “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War” from its elementary school libraries following a complaint.

The lawsuit states that the district received an objection, stating only “Non-Binary discussion – chapter,” on April 25th. A nine-member committee board selected to review the complaint recommended the book’s removal because it said the subject of gender identity may be new to young readers and the subject wouldn’t be obvious from the book’s title or cover.

The book’s website describes it as “a delightfully spun tale of robot overlords, secret feline agents, and Earthling humans who are in for a real catastrophe.” The lawsuit states that only three pages discuss a nonbinary character.

The lawsuit comes as families in Independence say they struggle to get information from their school board, and that it's gotten more difficult since the board recently started enforcing a policy limiting public comments.

That includes parent Arthur Smith, who’s been a regular fixture at board meetings since it banned “Cats vs. Robots.”

“We've got a board that unfortunately has shown that they're willing to participate in this kind of a nationwide scapegoating, witch hunt of trans kids and LGBT people,” Smith said. “It's really disheartening to know that there's not really even a way for us to speak out publicly to the board about it.”

The board’s vote follows local and national trends of attempts to ban books containing LGBTQ material from school libraries. The ACLU’s lawsuit noted that books written by or about minority or LGBTQ individuals are more frequently challenged on this basis than books by or about white or straight individuals.

Librarians in Missouri began taking books off their shelves this year in response to a new state law that makes it a crime to give sexually explicit material to minors. Librarians or other school officials could face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for violating the policy.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s Office is also proposing a rule that “state funds could not be used to purchase or acquire inappropriate materials in any form that appeal to the prurient interest of a minor.” The proposal would establish a certification requirement for libraries that receive state funds.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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