The School Committee in Ludlow, Massachusetts, is scheduled to vote next month on a controversial proposal that could significantly alter the types of books and media allowed in the district’s libraries. It could also take away significant decision-making from librarians.
At a School Committee meeting this week, parents and educators spoke their minds about the proposal for almost two hours.
It was clear from the public comments: both sides showed up to protect their children, their beliefs and their freedom of speech.
When parent Bella Soares stepped up to the microphone Tuesday, it wasn't the first time the district had heard from her about school library books she believes are inappropriate for students. That includes an illustrated book about puberty, "Sex is a Funny Word.”
Soares is part of an organized group called Ludlow Concerned Parents, according to a meeting agenda from a 2022 Select Board meeting.
The recently proposed library policy echoes Soares’ activism of the last few years.
At Tuesday's meeting, she first directed her comments to the parents and educators in the auditorium who disagree with her — who say the proposed policy is exclusionary, arbitrary and discriminatory against students who identify as LGBTQ.
"Get this all through your heads," Soares said. "You guys are the ones that are making it [about] LGBTQ. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with pornographic books in our school — drugs, rape, obscenity books. That's what we're trying to eliminate here."
Soares then read a passage aloud from a 2005 coming-of-age novel, John Green's "Looking for Alaska." Soares said the book is currently available to Ludlow sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
The scene depicts the start and completion of a sexual act between a teenage boy and girl, while they're watching "The Brady Bunch."
After reading, Soares said, "So now you tell me if this is not pornography! This is definitely pornography!"
That prompted shouts from others the crowd of about 150 people. It was one of several times that night the school committee chair asked people to settle down and follow protocol.
It was Ludlow School Committee Member Joao Dias who a few weeks ago proposed the new library materials policy.
On Tuesday, along with the rest of the committee, Dias sat at a table at the front of the room. Surrounding him were 10 books books he had taken out from the public library — to make a point.
They don't belong on the shelves of a school library, he said, and he proposed the new policy because it's needed.
"We've had complaints ongoing for the past six years. I think the chairman himself said that. [And] possible lawsuits from parents," Dias said, "and that's a real thing, and that's based on what's going on now, not what might be from a civil liberties union that doesn't protect any civil liberties."
The ACLU of Massachusetts has called Dias' proposal unlawful and a not-very-veiled attempt to suppress literature about LGBTQ experiences.
The proposed policy in Ludlow would give elected school officials like Dias decision-making powers about materials that could override librarians. Several were at the meeting and said they were not consulted by the school committee.
The policy could also lead to the firing of school employees who don't follow the rules or who encourage certain books.
The majority of people speaking out at the meeting were against Dias' proposal. One called it a moral crusade; another, a culture war.
Mike Kelliher, a parent and former school committee member, said it’s very sad for him to have to address the committee in this way.
"This policy originated from a hate group in Pennsylvania and somehow managed to find its way onto your agenda," he said. "And I think we need to know how that happened. I hope that's something that will be discussed tonight because that's important. It's important to know who's pulling the strings behind the scenes on some of our committee members."
The rancor brought about by the proposal may cover up that some parents in Ludlow have real concerns their children have access to inappropriate material.
Longtime Ludlow teacher Michelle Annecchiarico stood up at the microphone and said she understands that. She herself has questioned certain books available to middle schoolers, and questioned librarians.
She's told parents she'll help them do likewise, and help but none have taken her up on the offer.
But no one in the schools, Annecchiarico said, is pushing porn on students or trying to sexualize them.
"We are up against cell phones, social media, all-access 24/7 TV, YouTube, TikTok, 'Squid Games' ... we have kids who are allowed to watch 'Squid Games!'" she said.
At the meeting, three out of five School Committee members made statements indicating their opposition to Dias’ proposal. Things get heated.
Several people said the School Committee failed the district and are getting distracted by the loudest voices.
Some came to the meeting to talk about the school budget — and maybe to ask the superintendent about the 25 educators, including a couple of librarians, who are slated to be laid off.
That, they said, is what school officials should have been talking about.