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Criminal complaints filed over books in Wake County schools

Criminal complaints filed over books in Wake County schools

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Some parents and community activists want criminal charges to be filed against North Carolina’s largest school system for distributing books to students that contain graphic language and images about sex.

Nine criminal complaints were filed Tuesday with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office accusing the school system of distributing obscene and pornographic material. Some of the books targeted include “Gender Queer,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “George” and “Lawn Boy.” Those books previously have come under fire in North Carolina and nationally for sexual content.

The complainants say the language and images in various books depict oral sex and other sexual acts that go beyond what should be acceptable in Wake County school libraries.

“Someone is trying to normalize kids to sexual experiences,” Julie Page, one of the Wake parents who filed a complaint, said in an interview. “There is no educational value to these books, not even in a fictional sort of way.”

In addition to the police complaint, Page filed a grievance with the Wake County school system.

Any decision on whether to file criminal charges will be up to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

“We have begun an investigation into these complaints and we’re awaiting further evidence gathering before we can proceed to the next step,” Eric Curry, a spokesman for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, said in an interview.

Lisa Luten, a Wake County school spokeswoman, said the district is declining comment on the criminal complaints until it gets more information. She said that the district is following its policies for handling the grievance.

Books in school libraries draw more scrutiny

Parents have shown up at school board meetings across the nation, including in Wake County, to object to books they consider to be inappropriate.

“We’re seeing what seems to be a loosely organized effort through social media seeking to control what’s available in school libraries and school curricula and to remove books, particularity those reflecting LGBTQA themes and the lives of LGBTQA people,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the American Library Association’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in an interview.

For instance, the Proud Boys, a far-right group, joined efforts to get “Gender Queer” removed from a suburban Chicago school district. The book is an autobiography about how Maia Kobabe dealt with being nonbinary while growing up.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe. Oni Press TNS

The group Moms for Liberty, which initially founded to fight school mask mandates, is now also targeting what it calls “pornographic” books in school libraries. Page is the Wake County chapter chair of Moms for Liberty but says the local effort is made up of more than just her group.

Page and Wendy Runyon, a Raleigh parent who also filed a criminal complaint, say that they’re not targeting just LGBTQ books. They say they’re also complaining about books that contact graphic heterosexual material.

“It’s heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual,” Page said. “It’s adult on child. It’s incest to rape, every which kind of way sexual material. We’re not targeting any specific type of group or person.”

Criminal investigations into books nationally

A new wrinkle in the debate about explicit books in school and public libraries is the effort to seek criminal charges.

Last month, South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate whether any state laws have been broken due to “obscene and pornographic materials” in the state’s public schools, The State newspaper reported.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered a similar criminal investigation of materials in the state’s public schools.

The book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson has ignited a heat debate in Flagler County over banning books. Macmillan Publishers TNS

A Florida school board member filed a criminal complaint in November accusing the district of violating obscenity laws for having the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” in school libraries, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The book contains sexual content and features author George M. Johnson’s reflections on growing up Black and queer.

A Wyoming couple filed criminal complaints against librarians accusing them of providing young people with books about sex education and LGBTQ themes that violated obscenity laws. But a prosecutor decided in October not to file charges, the Associated Press reported.

“These works in no way meet the legal test for obscenity for minors,” Caldwell-Stone, of the library association, said. “It’s an individual decision that should lie with each parent and not a group of parents that’s trying to require a government institution to adhere to their particular themes on sexual identity.”

Bringing attention to books in Wake

Runyon, the Wake parent, said she was motivated to investigate after hearing GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson complain about sexually explicit books in the state’s public schools.

Runyon, the parent of high school and elementary students, said she and other parents were shocked to find 144 different titles they say contain sexually graphic language and images in 188 Wake schools. She said students can get hard copies in their school library or access digital copies of the books.

“I’m not a prude,” Runyon said in an interview. “But nothing in the books is educational at all. It’s just garbage.”

Runyon said she doesn’t expect charges will be filed. But she said she’s hoping the complaints will warn parents about the kinds of materials that their children are exposed to at school.

“If this wakes up one parent and makes them check the book their child brought home, it will be worth it,” she said.

But Caldwell-Stone said critics who are focusing on a few pages or images aren’t considering the works as a whole. She said these books, such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Gender Queer,” talk about serious issues in an honest way.

“What are we teaching young people about our personal liberties, our constitutional democracy when we resort to censorship for control of thought?” Caldwell-Stone said.

This story was originally published December 2, 2021 2:57 PM.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.