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Bayfield Middle School accused of banning LGBTQ novel

Teachers cry censorship, district points to policy
Students and outside observers say it appears Bayfield Middle School has banned a book, dealing with LGBTQ issues. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In September, as Bayfield teachers prepared lessons for Banned Books Week, a young adult novel featuring LGBTQ content was removed from a classroom library.

Some teachers called it censorship. Others said it sends a message that LGBTQ content is not fully accepted in the Bayfield School District. The administration chalked it up as a non-issue, calling it a personnel issue and having nothing to do with the novel’s content.

Students, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ and/or those who support the community, have been left grappling with a question: In Bayfield schools, is LGBTQ-related content “controversial”?

“I really feel like, by them banning this book, it’s just spreading the message that it’s not OK to be gay, especially in school,” said Alek Burgess, an eighth grade student who is enrolled in the class at the center of the issue.

In 2019, a rainbow flag, commonly used as a symbol of unity in LGBTQ social movements, caused heated community debate after it was hung in a Bayfield Middle School classroom.

In 2018, Bayfield students apologized to the school board for LGBTQ-related content in the student newspaper after debate about whether it was appropriate.

The novel, “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, is a coming-of-age story about two teenage boys. The award-winning novel includes potentially sensitive subject matter related to sexuality, substance use, racial identity, friendship and growth.

Categorized as young adult fiction, the book was written for readers between ages 12 and 18. The Junior Library Guild put the book in its “mature young adults plus” category for grades 11 and up.

In Bayfield, Burgess said he asked his teacher, Dana Gerrits, to add the book to her free-choice classroom library.

The growing “library,” a bookshelf with about 75 books, includes popular new novels and literary classics for seventh and eighth grade students, said Gerrits, who joined the district this fall. When laying out guidelines for the library, Gerrits told students they could read the books – or not – and reading material should align with students’ family values.

The books were not used in classroom lessons and were not required reading, she said.

Another family expressed concern to the middle school administration after their child borrowed the book from the classroom library.

In response, the school principal, Brandon Thurston, told Gerrits the novel’s inclusion in the classroom violated a school policy related to controversial material, Gerrits said.

Gerrits never saw the original complaint, she said. Based on her conversations with Thurston, it related to swearing, underage drinking, LGBTQ relationships and LGBTQ hate crimes.

“It is not available (in the classroom). I have not returned it because I was told not to by the administration,” Gerrits said Wednesday. She declined to comment further about the incident.

Thurston did not respond to requests for comment.

“There’s really not a story here because the book’s not the issue,” said Superintendent Kevin Aten. “There was a personnel matter that I’m not going to comment on. ... And then these two got confounded.”

He said the personnel issue was related to a district policy that says controversial materials, which are not part of a district-approved curriculum, should receive administrative approval before being used as instructional material.

According to the policy, such controversial materials can include depictions of explicit sexual content, profanity, drug use, graphic violence, socially undesirable behaviors or materials that could divide the community along racial, ethnic or religious lines.

“I’m not specifically going to respond as to whether this material was or wasn’t (controversial) because there’s a lot of factors that are dependent on that,” Aten said.

He said the novel was not part of a district-approved curriculum, and there was no consideration of changing its status as of Thursday.

The district’s Board of Education holds final responsibility for all books and instructional materials, but staff members are accountable for selection.

“The value of any book or other material shall be judged as a whole, taking into account the purpose of the material rather than individual, isolated expressions or incidents in the work,” the policy says.

If there is a complaint, district policy asks the person to sign a form and the superintendent will re-evaluate the material. Aten said he did not receive a written complaint about the novel.

Other teachers in the district are still concerned.

Roxanne Henderson, a Bayfield High School English teacher, said it sounds like censorship.

“My concern is that these marginalized kids don’t need to be told that they’re controversial, that it’s unsafe to be LGBTQ or an ally of that in any community,” she said. “I’m disappointed that an extremely benign book about the process of growing up would be denied to students at the middle school – students who probably need to read literature like that.”

Rachel Rosenthal, another high school teacher and Gay Straight Alliance sponsor, said representation is important to students.

“When they see a book banned that has a character that is LGBTQ, it’s seen as a personal affront or a personal attack because it’s removing a book that represents them,” she said. “If it’s not an assigned book that students are being graded for, I don’t understand why it would need to be removed.”

Aten said that’s not the district’s intent.

“We want to be an inclusive and welcoming school environment, and we want every kid to be successful,” he said. “... I think we’ve done everything we can to protect the inclusive environment and diversity of our student body.”

For Burgess, the whole incident has been frustrating.

“For me, it’s not necessarily about the book. It’s more about the message that banning the book spread,” he said. “I just feel like they need to stop spreading the message that everybody has to be the same and being gay isn’t OK. ... If I picked one thing to come out of this, it’s to have more of an accepting school.”

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