After a plainclothes police officer visited Great Barrington’s W.E.B. DuBois Regional Middle School in response to a complaint about the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” there’s been sharp disagreement about whether law enforcement behaved appropriately or overstepped its bounds.
According to Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti, the police visit on Dec. 8 occurred after an unidentified individual complained about the content of a book that a teacher had made available to students at DuBois. The individual provided police with two images: the cover of “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel in which author Maia Kobabe recounts coming of age as a nonbinary person; and a selection from the book in which two illustrated characters are shown engaging in oral sex.
The complainant has not been identified, but Storti said they are a member of the school community.
Storti told GBH News that because the complaint was made directly to the police department, police were obligated to respond. He added that their response was carefully crafted to minimize any disruption to or negative impact on the school, with an officer in plain clothes visiting toward the end of the school day after first consulting with school administrators.
“The interaction with the teacher was cordial,” said Storti, who said he had no familiarity with the book before receiving the complaint.
“The officer didn't touch anything. They didn't search,” Storti added. “They basically asked if the book was still there, to give the context of what we were dealing with dealing with. The teacher said the book wasn't there, and the officer left.”
The location of the copy of “Gender Queer” in question is not currently clear.
In the wake of that visit, the Great Barrington Police Department and Berkshire County District Attorney Timothy Shugrue have determined that no criminality was involved, and referred the matter back to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
School committee chair Stephen Bannon told GBH News that the complaint and the events that followed it will be discussed at a meeting in January.
Julia Sabourin, a spokesperson for Shugrue, agreed with Storti that a law enforcement response was required once the initial complaint was made to police.
“Police are duty bound to investigate reported criminal acts, and they can’t choose when to respond and when not to,” Sabourin said. “‘Gender Queer’ is the most banned book this year … but just researching [that context] doesn’t complete what officers are bound to do.”
But Ruth Bourquin, senior managing attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, took vigorous issue with that assessment.
“We are deeply concerned about the overreach by law enforcement in going down this path at all,” Bourquin said. “These are the tactics of a police state. … There is no serious argument that this book would give rise to the basis for any criminal investigation.”
Last week, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed two public records requests for materials connected to the complaint and its aftermath.
Jennifer Varney, the past president of the Massachusetts School Library Association, echoed Bourquin’s concerns about law enforcement’s involvement in a dispute over educational materials.
“Disagreements about books are not a reason for law enforcement involvement,” Varney wrote in an email. “Concerns about a book in a school should be brought to the teacher, librarian, or principal.”
Miles Wheat, the principal of the DuBois, characterized the school's relationship with the Great Barrington Police Department as excellent and largely echoed the description of the visit offered by Storti, the police chief.
However, Wheat added that the complaint and police visit have been "very unsettling to the school community" and prompted concern about censorship.
“I certainly don’t want to imply that’s what the Great Barrington police were attempting,” Wheat said. “But I do think that … we have some work to do to kind of get things back on track.”