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Independence parents divided on school board banning book over a nonbinary character

Father and child outside an Independence school board meeting.
Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Art Smith is the parent of 16-year-old Tiona Horning, who is nonbinary. They attended Tuesday night's board meeting to speak against the Independence School District's removal of a book including a nonbinary character.

Art Smith, the parent of a nonbinary child, said the Independence School District’s removal of a book including a non-binary character makes it hard for kids like his to feel welcome. Other parents say the book isn’t age-appropriate.

Parents packed the Independence Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night, divided over the district’s removal of a book that includes a nonbinary character.

The Independence School Board voted last month to remove “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War” from its elementary school libraries. The board argued the subject of gender identity may be new to young readers and that the subject wouldn’t be obvious from the book’s title or cover.

Tiona Horning, a junior at Van Horn High School, was among dozens of people piled into the Tuesday night’s board meeting. Tiona loves reading, especially about nonbinary characters that reflect their identity.

“I often end up rereading those books a lot more,” the 16-year-old said. “It’s like I’m reading books that have characters who are like me.”

Tiona lay on the couch and tried not to cry after reading a letter from the district saying it planned to remove the book from school libraries.

“I'm just me and trying to be me even more at school, just in general,” Tiona said. “And then, and suddenly, they ban a book with a nonbinary character.”

Art Smith, Tiona’s father, is also the parent of a transgender child who graduated from the Independence School District. He said the district’s decision makes it hard to feel like LGBTQ students, like his kids, are welcome there.

“The message, intentional or not, is loud and clear that you are too complicated, too controversial or too dangerous for a child to stumble across a description of who you are on their own,” Smith told the board.

The book is described on its website as “a delightfully spun tale of robot overlords, secret feline agents, and Earthling humans who are in for a real catastrophe.”

One of the book’s authors, Lewis Peterson, posted a short excerpt from the book where readers are introduced to nonbinary character Javi, who says: “It means if you asked me I wouldn’t say I was a BOY or a GIRL.”

Other parents spoke in support of the district’s decision to remove the book, citing concerns that it contained material that isn’t age-appropriate and enforced gender stereotypes in its explanation of what nonbinary means.

Bruce Gibbs told the board he was on the nine-member committee that recommended the district remove the book from its elementary libraries.

He said he was concerned that the cover of the book gave no indication that it included a nonbinary character, and other themes in the story.

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.
Jodi Fortino
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.

“The book also carries an underlying theme that children should be skeptical, skeptical and distrusting of adults, be they teachers, guardians or parents,” Gibbs said. “And this book drives a wedge between children and adults with other things. That's not appropriate. And I find it deeply concerning.”

Yet Smith told the board that more harm is being done by removing the book than by allowing kids like his to find it when they are in elementary school.

He also asked the board to reconsider its decision to remove the book, to issue an apology to nonbinary students and their families, and to move forward with the work of the district’s cultural competency team.

“I'm pleased to say that we haven’t yet removed all the books with gender-nonconforming characters,” Smith said. “But I won't be tattling on any of those other authors tonight, because every one of those books is a lifeline for my child and others like them, that make them feel not so alone.“

The board’s vote follows local and national trends of attempts to ban books containing LGBTQ material from school libraries.

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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