Academy School District 20 in Colorado Springs has removed three books from school libraries after receiving a letter from members of a conservative activist group that claims the books meet the legal definition of obscenity, according to emails obtained by a Colorado Open Records Act Request.
“Recently, we have come across several videos of parents and community members throughout the nation finding sexually explicit books in their children’s school libraries,” read an April 27 email to D20 Superintendent Tom Gregory from Kris Garofalo and Kym Harvey, cosigned by 24 other parents in the district, which in 2020 had an enrollment of over 26,000 students. “Upon further research, we have identified some of these same books in D20 school libraries. Please see the attached Colorado Revised Statute 18-7-102 in reference to obscenity. In summary, promotion of obscenity to a minor is a class 6 felony. Many parent groups have taken a very public approach to escalate this issue and are reading sexually explicit excerpts during their Board of Education comments. We are reaching out directly to you in hopes of a better solution. Given the Revised Statute, removal of these books should be less controversial and not subject to hours of debate during school board meetings.”
The email identified three books with sexually explicit content: Push by Sapphire, which was the basis of the 2009 Academy Award-winning film “Precious,” Identical by Ellen Hopkins, and Lucky by Rachel Vail. These books have been at the heart of school board debates around censorship across the country. Included in Garofalo and Harvey’s email was a link to a viral TikTok video of a Michigan parent reading excerpts of these books at a school board meeting.
On May 1, the Colorado Springs Gazette ran a guest column from Derrick Wilburn, a member of the activist group Advocates for D20 Kids, which has been outspoken in its opposition to books with sexual or LGBTQ content. Wilburn wrote, “Parents have every right to say that they don’t want pornography in their kids’ schools. In a world with one iota of moral sanity, that is not only non-controversial, but it should be expected. … Depending on their age, students should be learning how to multiply polynomials, write cursive, or tie their shoelaces, not anal sex and blowjobs. Parents, teachers, school staff and administrators are supposed to be guardians of our children’s lives, not brokers between our kids and online sexual predators. School districts, you have abdicated your responsibility. You have failed our children. In 2021, the adults in the room said “enough.” In 2023, you’ll learn that we meant it.”
On May 4, Superintendent Gregory sent an email to principals in D20 authorizing them to remove the books. “I am writing to let you know that this email authorizes you to remove the books identified in the letter you received earlier this week prior to waiting for a formal challenge to be filed,” he wrote. “A principal has the authority to determine the materials that reside in the library of the school and I want you to know you have my support in making that decision. If you plan to remove the book/s from your library, please let me know that you are doing so. Follow-through in the system needs to take place so that the book/s are no longer shown in your inventory. I have discussed with some of you already, but would like to know your final decision.”
On May 5, Mark Wahlstrom, the principal of Discovery Canyon Campus High School, informed Gregory he would be removing the books in question. “I will be removing the titles from our collection. I will be meeting with [Librarian] on Monday at 10 AM to inform her of my decision. Expect an adverse reaction from [Librarian] regarding my decision.”
Gregory responded, “I am happy to support your decision. You may want to reinforce that this is not about ‘book banning.’ Rather, it is about removing sexually explicit materials from the SCHOOL library. This may be appropriate in a public library, but not our SCHOOL libraries – they serve different purposes. I might question if she was aware of the content of the book prior to your review???? As the librarian she might want to prevent such material from entering the library in the future.”
Wahlstrom also asked if there was a specific policy he could point to in making this decision. On May 5, Gregory responded, “No, but….you are the [boss] of the school and are responsible for instructional and non-instructional materials within the school. When a community member raises a question you are obligated to look into it. As an aside….if they go the route of a formal “reconsideration of library materials” request (policy) and it gets to my level, I will have the books removed anyway. This is saving everyone time. Nothing helpful probably, but it is the reality.”
On May 6, Gregory responded to Harvey, “I gave the principals involved authority to make a decision on the books in question. All but one of the schools will (already have) removed the books from the library — one school principal will read the book first and then decide. So, in short, it appears the books have physically been removed at schools identified. It will take a bit more time to remove the titles from the Destiny electronic inventory system, but they are physically out of the libraries. Interestingly, many have never been checked out.”
On May 8, Susan Field, D20’s assistant superintendent for learning services responded to Wahlstrom, “We have a reconsideration policy, but it doesn’t state the principal can remove a book. We will be changing that policy by July 1.”
Pine Creek High School Principal Tracie Cormaney, in a May 8 email with the subject “Notes from the 5.8.2023 Cabinet Meeting,” asked:
“Books that were on the letter/email we received regarding those that will be challenged — do those books need to be removed until further information?
-This is not book banning, but the content may not be appropriate in a school library but just in a public library
– The removal is requested due to “vulgarity”….what is the definition of “vulgarity”
– Are we breaking our own policy by recommending that these books be removed?
– The district has received an official letter/complaint from the D20 families.
– Tom gave principals “authority” to remove these books…but is that a directive? I have been told yes and now I have a very pissed off librarian.”
Erin Stevens, a parent of a D20 high school student, is concerned about the administration’s actions and disputes the “obscenity” claims made by the 26 signatories in the April 27 email. “You can’t just say that something is obscene and have it be true,” she says. “These do not actually fall under that clause because you have to take the work as a whole and not cherry pick the pieces that you find to be obscene. If you take these works as a whole, they have messages that are important for students to be able to access should they want to. It’s important to note this stuff is not being taught. It’s not being [used] in the classrooms. The kids are not being assigned these books to read. These just exist in the library, just in case students would like to access these materials, and I guarantee you that not a single person who wants these books out of these libraries has read a single book all the way through.”
Tom Macdonald, the legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, also disputes the obscenity claims. “The definition in the statute in Colorado is a three part test,” he says. “It requires, among other things, that the book, taken as a whole, lacks any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. I think it’s highly unlikely that a book that was brought to a school library would satisfy just that element. It also has to include actually offensive representations or descriptions of sex acts. I think that we’re seeing this across the country that people are misusing the notion of obscenity to eliminate or restrict students’ abilities to see books and viewpoints that folks don’t like.”
According to screenshots obtained by Colorado Times Recorder, Garofalo, as well as two other signatories, are members of the “Moms for Liberty — El Paso County, CO” Facebook group. Other members of that Facebook group include the spouses of D20 board members Aaron Salt and Nicole Konz. Konz was part of the “FEC United — Education Pillar” Facebook group and the “Advocates for D20 Kids” Facebook group. Moms for Liberty is a national version of local conservative activist groups like Advocates for D20 Kids, with 260 chapters across the country focused on removing books from school libraries and getting conservatives elected to school boards. Advocates for D20 Kids is partnering with Moms for Liberty and Church For All Nation’s Culture Impact Team to host a May 25 straw poll to select two 2023 school board candidates.
A report last month from Vice described how Moms for Liberty has targeted teachers, administrators, parents, and school board members, orchestrating harassment campaigns.
Stevens thinks those tactics are having an impact in D20. “At this point, it feels like the board and not all the administration — really just [Superintendent] Tom Gregory — are afraid of pushback or blowback on them,” she says. “Maybe they have relationships with some of the people from the Advocates group, and so that is winning them over in a way. Maybe they’re sick of having to worry about it over the summer and they’re worried about having to battle it constantly, so they’re like, finally giving up. It’s enough. It’s been relentless. I think that the problem is going to be that the district is going to start losing a lot of their librarians and a lot of the people that the district counts on to make sure that our libraries are filled with books that are meaningful for our students to be able to read.”
In El Paso County, Moms for Liberty, which is led by former Monument Town Councilor Darcy Schoening, is building alliances with political figures. Rep. Scott Bottoms (R-CO Springs), Rep. Ron Weinberg (R-Loveland), and Sen. Kevin Van Winkle (R-Highlands Ranch) are all members of the “Moms for Liberty — El Paso County, CO” Facebook group. On May 22, Moms for Liberty will host former representative and current Colorado GOP Chair Dave Williams, and lawyer Brad Miller, a 2010 graduate of the libertarian training course Leadership Program of the Rockies and legal counsel for conservative, pro-charter school districts like Colorado Springs’ District 49 and Woodland Park School District, among others. Woodland Park School District made national news recently due to controversial decisions by its board to hire Superintendent Ken Witt, who was recalled as a Jefferson County School Board president, and the decision to adopt the conservative “American Birthright” social studies curriculum, among other issues. In March, Salt was hired as Woodland Park School District’s executive director of human resources.
“They have a larger agenda and we all know they have a larger agenda,” says Stevens. “They’re saying, no, we don’t want these [books] available to anybody — they’re dangerous, they’re harmful, and they go against our Christian nationalist policies and what we want to happen and what we want society to look like. The reality is that we live in a country where they don’t get to decide that for everybody, and they’re trying to.”
While this recent push is for three specific books with sexual content, parents like Stevens are concerned that more books will eventually be considered “obscene.” Recently, the website “d20books.com” has been established, which features a list of books with content labels such as “anti-police,” or “whiteness,” or “LGBTQ+.” A similar website has been established for District 49. In the Moms for Liberty Facebook group, a spreadsheet was shared containing 253 book titles, including works from noted authors like Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Atwood, and others.
Vonnegut has often been targeted by zealous school boards. In 1973 a North Dakota school board member burned 32 copies of Slaughterhouse Five that were used in an English class. Vonnegut wrote the elected official, noting:
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.
“After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, ‘Yes, yes— but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.’ This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.”– Kurt Vonnegut