LGBT families denied chance to address board on restricted lesbian book
Brigitte Bowles, a lesbian mother of four teenagers and a special education teacher, has faced moments of adversity while living in conservative Davis County.
Her children have been careful about disclosing their mother is gay. But over the years, Bowles said, her kids have lost friends as a result of her sexual orientation.
Such painful incidents helped draw Bowles to a Tuesday meeting of the Davis Board of Education. She joined about a dozen representatives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities who hoped to introduce themselves to board members in the wake of a recent decision to remove a book about lesbian mothers from shelves of elementary school libraries.
Students can read the book, In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco, only if they have a permission slip signed by parents a requirement that many in the LGBT community, including Bowles, consider hurtful.
Bowles, who last year worked at Centennial Junior High in Kaysville, was thrilled to hear that Windridge Elementary School, also in Kaysville, had purchased a copy of the picture book, which depicts a lesbian couple raising their children.
Her own children didn't have access to books that were representative of their family in elementary school, she recalled. But the decision to limit access to In Our Mothers' House has dampened her optimism that attitudes were perhaps changing in a community where her own family has felt a need to remain closeted at times.
"This is just five steps back," said Bowles, who is no relation to district superintendent Bryan Bowles, of the controversy over In Our Mothers' House. "If parents can't let their children learn that families come in all ways, we're not going too far."
Some members of the LGBT community who attended Tuesday's meeting were confused about why they weren't allowed to briefly speak to the school board. Weston Clark, a Woods Cross High School graduate and former teacher at Viewmont High School, said he submitted a request to be placed on the board's June 12 agenda.
Clark said that after he submitted the request, superintendent Bowles called to say Clark would not be placed on the agenda. Instead, Clark said, Bowles promised to allow him and a few other families to informally introduce themselves to the board at the start of the meeting.
Clark said Bowles withdrew his offer after Clark spoke to news media on Monday about his plans to attend the board meeting.
Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said Bowles never made any agreement with Clark to allow LGBT families to address the board, even informally. Allowing someone to speak who isn't on the agenda would violate state law, which requires agenda items to be posted before a public meeting convenes, he said.
Williams reiterated that a school board meeting may not be the best place for a discussion of diversity issues. He invited LGBT families to stay until the end of Tuesday's meeting, where they could then talk to school board members and Bowles after the meeting adjourned. School board president Marian Storey also invited guests to stay after the meeting to chat.
But Clark said Tuesday that he believes the district may be trying to avoid a public discussion about shelving the book.
He referenced the recent suicide of a Mountain Green teen who was reportedly bullied for being gay as a reason the community needs more discussion on fostering inclusion in schools.
"We're having an epidemic of bullying in the country and the state and it's a serious issue. Whenever you set a certain group of people aside and give them a parental note to have to view or see a group of people, we are segregating them from the general population and we're making them second-class citizens. That fosters an environment where people can bully and that's OK, because that person is 'less than.' It's giving a green light to bullies," said Clark. "We need to be more tolerant and inclusive."
Clark and others grilled Williams outside the board meeting about the district's policy on selecting members for the committee that voted to place the book behind the counter.
Williams said the names of committee members who voted on the book will not be made public and that minutes from their meetings are not subject to Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act.
He said previously the committee was made up of parents, teachers, librarians and administrators. Revealing the names of those involved would make it difficult to recruit future volunteers to serve on similar committees, Williams said.
Meanwhile, the controversy over In Our Mothers' House continues to draw attention.
Heidi and Jamie Justice recently relocated to Layton from Arkansas, where they would like to start a family. They said they are disappointed by the actions of the district where they plan to one day send their children.
"This book is locked down. Who is going to know about it?" said Jamie Justice outside Tuesday's meeting. She said of the district's decision, "It speaks volumes, really."
Book controversy in Davis School District
In Our Mothers' House, a picture book about a lesbian couple raising children, was removed from the shelves of elementary school libraries in Davis County after parents raised concerns about the suitability of the story. The book, by author Patricia Polocco, remains accessible at schools in the Davis School District, but only if a student presents a permission slip from a parent.
The decision to keep the book behind the counter followed an April 30 meeting during which a seven-member committee determined the book didn't align with district curriculum standards. The committee, comprised of teachers, administrators and parents, voted 6-1 to keep the book off shelves, with Bountiful High School librarian Trudena Fager casting the dissenting vote.
Names of other committee members have not been made public.
Davis spokesman Chris Williams said the committee's decision was based on state law that prohibits school curriculum from advocating homosexuality. Committee members also determined the book was not age-appropriate. Concerns about the book bubbled up in January, when the mother of a kindergarten student at Windridge Elementary in Kaysville became upset when her child checked out the book and brought it home. The mother and her husband brought their concerns to elementary school officials, according to Williams.
A committee at the school level decided to move the title to a section of the library for grades 3 to 6, after determining the book recommended for students in kindergarten through second grade was better suited for older readers, Williams said. That didn't appease parents of the kindergarten student, who gathered 25 signatures on a petition to move the discussion to the district level.
The district committee voted in April to place the book behind the counter. Parents who signed the petition were notified of the move in May.
Williams said the book was purchased in part because a student who attended Windridge Elementary has two mothers and librarians wanted to foster inclusion.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and anti-censorship groups have lobbied the district to rethink the committee's decision.