Alarm as police search Massachusetts school for ‘Gender Queer’ book

ACLU wants body camera footage of encounter

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 21 December 2023 19:14 GMT
Americans Love to Read Banned Books

Civil rights advocates and students in Massachusetts are raising alarm after a plainclothes police officer searched an 8th grade classroom for the memoir Gender Queer, a book with LGBT+ narratives that’s frequently a target of right-wing book banning efforts.

On 8 December, an officer with the Great Barrington Police Department entered WEB Du Bois Regional Middle School looking for the book, following up on an anonymous complaint to the department that the book contained obscene or pornographic materials.

The officer, who notified the school of their arrival and recorded the search on a body camera, was escorted in by the principal.

“That’s partly what is so concerning,” Ruth A Bourquin, senior and managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the Berkshire Eagle. “Police going into schools and searching for books is the sort of thing you hear about in communist China and Russia. What are we doing?”

The group wants to access body camera footage and other records related to the complaint.

More than 100 students at a nearby school walked out last week in protest over the police search.

Police chief Paul Storti told this week his department was obligated to follow up on the complaint about Gender Queer, an acclaimed exploration of coming of age that’s stocked in numerous school libraries.

“Because this complaint was made directly to the police department, we are obligated and have a duty to examine the complaint further,” he said.

“After a brief conversation with the teacher, the officer was advised that the book in question was not there and could not be accounted for at that time,” Chief Storti said. 

In a statement, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee said it “clearly and unequivocally” stands against book bans.

"The recent incident at the middle school has challenged and impacted our community," the statement continued. "Faced with an unprecedented police investigation of what should be a purely educational issue, we tried our best to serve the interests of students, families, teachers, and staff. In hindsight, we would have approached that moment differently. We are sorry. We can do better to refine and support our existing policies. We are committed to supporting all our students, particularly vulnerable populations."

The incident prompted governor Maura Healy to weigh in.

“Our administration stands with educators who are committed to ensuring that their students have inclusive, comprehensive resources,” she said in a statement. “I’m proud to see these students stepping up to support their teacher, their peers and an inclusive learning environment.”

Gender Queer was the single most frequently challenged book in school libraries in 2021 and 2022, according to the Associated Press.

As The Independent has reported, books written by and exploring the experiences of LGBT+ people and people of colour are the most frequent targets of parental complaints and right-wing book banning-efforts.

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