The San Ramon Valley school board's meeting last week extended late into the night, with a presentation and public hearing on the district's book acquisition guidelines and complaint processes drawing a large audience and vocal speakers from a range of perspectives.
Parents, teachers, students and other residents made up the approximately 30 public comments throughout the evening on Tuesday, following a presentation from district staff on existing guidelines and complaint processes surrounding library books and class materials and discussion amongst district officials.
"We have had some questions on every side of this particular discussion," San Ramon Valley Unified School District Superintendent John Malloy said. "We have an existing process that ... we'll share again tonight. And it is important that staff actually implements the process that you approve."
As Malloy noted, despite the crowd gathered for the night's discussion, the agenda item on the table at the end of that night's meeting was informational only, with no associated actions or recommendations for board members to vote on at the time.
"If for any reason you want something changed about the process, this is not an action item tonight; that would go to the next meeting where you could give us direction regarding what might need to be changed," Malloy said.
But although changes to school board policies across the country resulting in the removal of certain controversial materials from school libraries and curriculum have been characterized by some critics as a "book banning" trend, Malloy said that any efforts to increase compliance with existing SRVUSD policy on books and materials available to students -- or to make those policies more restrictive -- was a much more nuanced affair locally than the national trend.
"I think we're using pretty explosive words that, as educators, we're not going to use," Malloy said later in the night's discussion, following a question from first-year Trustee Jesse vanZee on what would constitute a "ban" vs "censorship" of library materials.
"Our public and community can use it -- anyone can use it -- but from an educator point of view, it's not about banning or not," Malloy continued. "It's about access. It's about age appropriate(ness) and it's about the diversity of our community being reflected in the diversity of our resources."
"If there's any aspect of that that you believe needs to be changed obviously we have meetings like these but we don't talk as educators about banning or not. And I'm only saying that because those are terms that don't flow from who we are and what we're about," the superintendent added.
vanZee said he agreed with Malloy's point, adding that it should go "both ways" in addressing the concerns of critics
"I 100% agree with that, and I also want to make sure that that goes back the other way, that parents that have considerations about books, that we also apply that same logic and we do not call them book banners or censors because I think that it's inflammatory both ways," vanZee said. "So from a civility standpoint I think we can agree on that."
Civility and tolerance were also themes of Malloy's contributions that night, with the hearing coming in the wake of a story -- unsubstantiated by evidence from the district -- of a local student allegedly failing an assignment due to not reading the 2019 graphic novel "Gender Queer" by author Maia Kobabe.
"If there is something assigned that someone feels is completely inappropriate, where it emerged at one point recently that happened and we could never find any evidence of it, because it wouldn't be OK, and we would engage to change that practice," Malloy said. "That is part of our commitment."
The book has come under scrutiny in school districts across the nation, with critics calling it "pornography" that should be restricted from school libraries for its blunt illustrations of some explicit sex acts as the story documents a semi-autobiographical coming of age saga for the author, who identified as asexual and non-binary as an adult.
"One would hope that those who are screening and recommending instructional material would reflect healthy uplifting values, but sadly this is not the case," Linda Hurley, a trustee at the neighboring Sunol Glen Unified School District, said in a public comment at Tuesday's SRVUSD board meeting.
"Providing graphic pictures and instructions on how to have anal sex is plain and simple pornography," Hurley continued.
In addition to critiquing recently released LGBTQIA literature on school library shelves, a number of the public speakers also decried what they characterized as a shift in focus from educational pillars such as the "three Rs" and called for a renewed focus on basic subjects.
"What is the primary job of the district high schools? I submit that it is to teach the boys and girls basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, geography and other skills that they will need to compete in today's world," Danville resident Terry Thompson said in a public comment. "I submit to you that one of the responsibilities of the district high schools is not to introduce the boys and girls to pornography, rather it is to protect them from pornography."
Critics of the book and other LGBTQIA content in district libraries also likened the material to other crises facing young people in the modern day, such as the precipitous rise in addiction and death from drugs -- particularly fentanyl.
"I do not want children to be exposed to hetero- or homosexual sexuality," Lisa Disbrow said in a public comment. "It is like fentanyl or cocaine. It is wrong for the child's brain and emotions."
But despite the calls for civility and the forum for a wide range of views on appropriate school materials and actions from school officials, the issues brought up by the books in question that night weren't as simple as prohibiting pornography from school libraries, given the legal definition of the term and its limitations, which were discussed by attorney Namita Brown in response to questions from trustees.
"Under federal case law, actual depiction of children is pornography -- not fiction, not fiction writing, not drawings -- that doesn't automatically rise up to the level of pornographic materials," Brown said. "That is not my deduction, that is case law."
She also pointed to the difficult legal terrain of the term "obscenity" based on existing precedent and practice.
"Obscenity is not as simple as not agreeing with a particular image or not agreeing with a particular depiction of scene -- it has to be throughout," Brown said. "So it is a very, very detailed area of the law. It is extremely driven by facts of the book that you are considering."
Not everyone was as patient with the topic and tone of the night's discussion as Malloy said he and his cabinet were, or as sympathetic to the rumored scandal over "Gender Queer" that was in the background that evening.
"I've heard some parents ... say 'we want to expose our kids to this, we just want to be the ones to do it," said Monte Vista student Aydin Yelkovan in a public comment. "Well, how do you think that you are better equipped to do that than someone who's a trained professional? And why are you so scared of your kid being exposed to the real world? You say, 'Oh the kids aren't prepared for this', but guess what, you're not preparing them for adulthood by not letting them be exposed to that. So it just makes no sense."
"And to the person who said 'anal sex is like fentanyl' or whatever they said -- I've lost people to fentanyl," Yelkovan continued, in response to Disbrow's comment. "I haven't lost anyone to having sex."
Bob Allen, an openly gay statistics teacher at California High School, voiced frustrations about the context of that night's meeting, and raised concerns about what he saw as a slippery path for the district.
"This entire tempest in a teapot was started on false pretenses," Allen said. "There's no evidence that the student or parent exists."
Allen added that the charge of "inappropriateness" of literature for students could just as easily be made toward classics within the canon for centuries, including in the works of literary pillars such as Shakespeare.
"Do not let this take a foothold in this district," Allen said. "That's why a lot of us are here today. They can object to whatever they want -- that's fine. They don't have to check the book out, and trustees, do not let this become a foothold."
The emotionally charged nature of the topic, as well as the legal nuances and complications associated with defining books as inappropriate and removing them from libraries, were among the points of the night's discussion that Malloy said were evidence of district staff's need for additional direction from the board.
"This as you can see is a very important topic," Malloy said. "It has lots of intensity attached to it. Our inboxes have been full. And that's what you need to give us direction on. If you send us to do something without you, there would be people in this room who wouldn't trust what we were doing on your behalf, and I'm just stating that clearly. There would be other people who would trust what we were doing on their behalf, and I'm asking you as a board not to give us that responsibility without your leadership."
"I don't think it would actually work as well as we'd love it to if we could have that trust we were talking about, that sense that we're all working on the same team, by all means trustee I would jump on that option," he added. "But right now, in this context, we're in with the intensity it causes, I think we actually need you, as a board."
Malloy ended his comments that night by outlining the next steps for trustees who would like to see the district's book acquisition and complaint policies amended, which would consist of adding the item to a meeting agenda for a vote by the board. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for March 14 at 6 p.m.