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Nebraska ed board member says books are ‘hyper-sexualizing’ kids; others say it’s a local issue

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A vulgar joke and sexually explicit passages from several books were read aloud during a public meeting of the Nebraska State Board of Education, as one board member made his case that inappropriate books are showing up in school libraries.

In doing so, he sparked a debate resembling one happening across the U.S., as parents and education officials of differing political leanings jockey over what material is appropriate for school-aged children.

Board member Kirk Penner read aloud several passages depicting sex acts. A man from the audience also read a couple of passages, including a crude joke about gay sex, from the podium during the public comment period.

Penner said his goal at the Feb. 4 meeting was not to ban books but to alert parents and local school officials to the materials in some school libraries.

“We’re hyper-sexualizing our kids,” he said.

Some of the passages Penner read depicted same-sex acts, and one book explained gender fluidity to kids.

Several board members said that choosing library books is a local decision, not one for the board, and that local districts should have processes in place for parents to challenge books.

Board member Lisa Fricke said that although the passages made her uncomfortable, the selection of books is a local control issue.

“Why it was brought before the state board is not clear to me,” Fricke said in a recent interview. “We don’t have a role in what’s selected locally by school districts.”

She said the U.S. Supreme Court has provided guidance for determining if material is obscene, a test that involves whether material has literary value. Fricke said there’s not one litmus test for what’s acceptable, “but there is such a thing as decency, age appropriateness.”

Another board member, Jacquelyn Morrison, questioned whether Penner was targeting books that portrayed same-sex relationships and gender identity.

“If your position is we shouldn’t have books about LGBTQ+ themes in schools, then I can’t agree with that,” Morrison said.

Penner responded that the passages he read reflected a mix of sexual orientations and that “pornography’s pornography to me.”

Several Nebraska school districts, including in metro Omaha, confirmed to The World-Herald that some of the books read at the meeting are in their collections.

Across the country, similar explicit public readings have been taking place at school board meetings as conservatives push back against what they view as a liberal-progressive agenda in school curriculum.

Nationally, various books have been challenged in recent years over comments and depictions deemed racist, among them several Dr. Seuss books, “Huckleberry Finn” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

The American Library Association reported last year an uptick in challenges of books and resources with gay, queer and transgender themes and that tell the stories of people who are Black, indigenous or are persons of color.

According to the association, more than 330 unique cases were reported to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30.

Penner, who was appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in December and is running to keep the seat beyond 2022, read passages depicting a girl performing oral sex on a boy, and a male ejaculating on another male. He also mentioned a graphic novel with images of two middle school girls kissing and a book that asserts gender is fluid.

After reading the passages aloud, Penner said: “My goodness, I was scared to read that in public.”

One of the books was “Brave Face: A Memoir” by Shaun David Hutchinson.

Penner read several passages from it including this one:

“Parker unbuttoned his shorts and tugged them down around his knees. He rubbed his (deleted) against my thighs three maybe four times. His body stiffened ... and then he (deleted) on the leg of my jeans.”

Penner did not delete any words.

He read the following passage from “It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity” by Theresa Thorn:

“When a baby is born, the parents make a guess as to the child’s gender. As the child gets older, they can choose their identity.”

Penner read a passage from “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, in which a boy describes a girl performing oral sex on him.

“With me sitting watching the Brady Bunch, watching Marsha Marsha Marsha up to her Brady antics, Laura unbuttoned my pants and pulled my boxers down a little and pulled out my (deleted) ... And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it in her mouth.”

Penner also read several negative reviews submitted to Amazon.com about the graphic novel “The Breakaways” by Cathy G. Johnson.

It depicts two middle school girls kissing, he said.

“If we’re finding these books in elementary, middle school and high school libraries, that is sick,” he said.

The man who read from the podium recited a vulgar joke he said was in the book “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

The World-Herald checked with a number of Nebraska districts to see if any of the books mentioned are in school libraries.

Several metro Omaha districts, including Bellevue, Bennington, Ralston, Springfield Platteview and Papillion La Vista, had at least one of the books in their collections.

Millard, for instance, indicated that “Looking for Alaska” is available to high school and middle school students, “Brave Face: A Memoir” to high school students and “The Breakaways” in middle school.

“Lawn Boy” is not in the Millard collection, nor do kids have access to “It Feels Good to Be Yourself,” a spokeswoman said.

In the Omaha Public Schools, “Lawn Boy” is not available, but the other books are available at some middle and high schools, a spokeswoman said.

State board member Maureen Nickels said every district should have a complaint process when parents are concerned.

If the process is followed, “the book could be taken away, it might be moved to a different grade level, it might not be removed at all,” she said.

According to the Nebraska School Librarians Association, librarians work with local school boards to create policies for selection of materials and for requesting reconsideration of materials.

“While an individual may not agree with a particular decision, numerous examples of local book challenges show that the process does indeed work, without inhibiting the First Amendment rights of other readers,” the association said.

The Kearney Public Schools, which has several of the questioned books in its collection, implemented a new library policy last month.

The policy calls on parents to submit a permission form indicating whether they give prior consent for their child to check out materials.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent Kent Edwards wrote that the district has a responsibility to serve readers of different ages, reading levels, backgrounds and experiences.

“We have a responsibility to offer a wide range of book choices that meet all of their diverse needs,” Edwards wrote, noting that some material in their libraries may be “outside of their families’ moral values and philosophies.”

According to the district, the policy is a "proactive effort" to enlist parents in determining what they would like for their children while not limiting the learning opportunities or reading enjoyment of others.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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