Parents in Windham are battling with left-wing activists and members of the school board over books in the school library that feature cartoon images of children having sex and lurid passages about sexual encounters between minors. At immediate issue are two books – one in the middle school and one at the high school library – that depict graphic sexual activities.
More broadly, in objecting to these materials, parents feel the school, and its governing board, are trying to shut them out.
Knox Zajac, an 11–year-old sixth grader, spoke up at a school board meeting last week to read aloud from the illustrated romance for teenagers, “Nick and Charlie,” that he had checked out of his school’s library. The story begins with two early teen boys stealing wine from their parents and proceeding to experiment sexually with one another.
“A lot of parents just don’t know what’s going on in the school,” Knox’s father, Adam Zajac, told The Maine Wire. “What I don’t understand is how we have books in the middle school library that adults would be fired for having at work, or potentially prosecuted for sharing with children given their pornographic content. It’s smut, really.”
State and Federal law prohibit the possession or distribution of pornographic material involving children, though cartoon images are a gray area. Maine law prohibits the distribution of obscene material to minors; however, the law includes an exception if the obscene material is provided to children at school.
When Knox checked out “Nick and Charlie,” the librarian told him that if he liked it, she had similar ones she could lend him, he told the school board. The age advisory on this book is 14-years of age and older.
Another book in the high school library, “Gender Queer,” includes graphic depictions of minors engaging in sexual intercourse that could be mistaken for a how-to manual. The age advisory on this book is for readers of 18 years of age and older.
Parents want age-appropriate limitations on access to these books — if they’re to be in the library at all. But most members of the school board disagree, and some community members think the board is taking steps to limit the involvement of parents in public meetings.
Ken Clark has children in both the middle and high schools within the RSU-14 system and has “had (his) antennae up for several years now,” he told The Maine Wire, because the schools are inviting students to officially change their gender in the school records “100% behind the parents’ backs,” he said. What activated him was one of his daughters photographing a poster in school inviting students to talk with school officials about gender fluidity.
Clark said he is part of a group of parents who share his concerns, and that the number of parents participating in their regular discussions is growing.
“It’s becoming trendy to be a trans kid,” Maria Clark, a grandmother of nine students in the RSU-14 system told The Maine Wire.
Whether social contagion is contributing to the documented rise in non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identifications in Maine high schools is an open question — one school officials have refrained from studying despite the significant trends in the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey data.
“We’re not looking to ban books, we’re just trying to make sure they aren’t all out front and center in the libraries like they are now,” said Clark.
Clark said parents have begun the process of requesting these books be put in a reserve section to be available on request, but notes it is a time-intensive one.
“We’re not trying to ban books, we’re just concerned that they are being used not as reference but rather advocacy materials,” she said.
Robin Frost, a local surgeon, recently pulled her youngest daughter out of the RSU-14 system and enrolled her in a private school because of repeated issues with the district that began during the period of mandatory masking. The school would not allow Frost’s daughter a medical exception to the requirement. As a result, Frost said, she had to provide oxygen to her daughter when she returned from school to make up for the health damage she suffered during the school day.
“I used to smile when I dropped my kids off at school, but it got the point where I no longer did and was cringing instead,” she explained. After the dispute over masking, Frost began to notice a shift in school priorities away from academics and towards more Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, and especially sexual diversity programming.
“If you ask a question, they make you feel like a bigot,” Frost said.
The openness of school board debates has taken a sharp turn away from parental involvement and interaction, Windham’s state representative told The Maine Wire in a recent interview.
“It seems like the debate at the school board is stacked against parents,” Rep. Barbara Bagshaw (R-Windham) said, adding: “They pretty much want to shut down communication from parents.”
Right now, the ire of parents is centered on the book issue, but some of their grievances go back to how the school handled its masking and testing policies during the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Bagshaw said COVID Era debates gave rise to stricter limits on public input during board meetings that continue to constrain parental involvement. She also said some members of the community have questioned whether the public audio/video feeds of meetings, as well as a community Facebook page, have been subject to political censorship. For example, she said that when Knox, the 6th grader, read from one of the books during a public meeting, the feed mysteriously glitched.
Jodi Carroll, an Windham school board member, was the only school board member to respond to an inquiry from the Maine Wire. She responded at length to a series of questions concerning the board’s management of parental involvement, controversial books, and the role the Portland-area law firm Drummond Woodsum has played in advising board members.
“Each board member is responsible to familiarize themselves with not only State Statute, it is critical for them to also review and understand Maine School Law and Practice for Board Members (publication of Drummond Woodsum) to the best of their ability,” wrote Carroll.
Carroll said the school board does not delay or otherwise interfere with the publication or streaming of audio/video from meetings and that those services are provided by the towns of Raymond and Windham. She said that, while she has interacted with the moderators of a community Facebook page, she has not asked for any posts to be taken down. Further, she said a moderator of one of those pages denied receiving contacts from other board members.
“The school board recognizes that unfortunately sometimes the circumstance and timing of our meetings, workshops and executive sessions that we must conduct according to our duties outlined in Title 20A §1001 can appear to be unwelcoming to the public,” she said, adding that non-public executive sessions are often necessary for the board to carry out their duties.
“The reality is that there is business that the school board is charged with working through that requires privacy and confidentiality and therefore we cannot as a board discuss in a public meeting so they must be discussed in executive session,” she said.
“[I]t is important to note that we as a team of board members are elected officials and are dedicated to the well-being and success of all students in RSU14. We dedicate the time and diligence required to serve the students, their parents/guardians and communities at large to the best of our ability,” she said. “Notably, most of the current board members have children in the district, so we understand that parent involvement is fundamental to the success of the students of RSU14.”
“We earnestly wish to communicate that if it appears as though the process or the way that our business is conducted seems contrary to this idea that the public ask questions to help us work together to share information and to work together to achieve the best outcome for our students,” she said.
Bagshaw is unconvinced. She called Carroll’s response “lawyerly.”
“Complete transparency (information in real time) and parental involvement will produce the best outcomes, especially for young, impressionable children,” said Bagshaw.
“The parents are very angry that [the board has] been kicking the can down the road. But they’re learning how to jump through all the hoops,” Bagshaw predicted.
Carroll said she did not consult with Drummond Woodsum to prepare her response.
Concerned parents are looking forward to an RSU-14 school board meeting on March 1 where they will be seeking answers to the questions they’ve been raising about graphic materials in the school libraries.
The Maine Wire reached out to Superintendent Chris Howell for comment on Wednesday but did not receive an immediate response.
The following public record, obtained by the Maine Wire, was prepared by Drummond Woodsum for school boards in Maine to brief them on how to handle controversial topics during school board meetings.