Parents, school librarians concerned about repercussions as Missouri’s ban on ‘sexually explicit material’ law takes effect

Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 7:11 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - For many, books provide an escape from reality, or a safe space to learn about other lives, cultures, and identities.

Yet, parents like Libbi Simms worry students are now losing the opportunity to learn from books offered in the classroom and school libraries.

“Every parent has the right to determine what their child can read, but that right only extends to their children, not everyone,” said Simms, who is a parent with the Francis Howell School District. “And personal beliefs shouldn’t dictate what all students in the district have access to.”

On Sunday, a new Missouri law took effect, which outlaws books containing “sexually explicit material” on public and private school campuses. This means books with images depicting sexual acts or genitalia.

“There’s some description about what sexually explicit means, but there’s also a carve-out for artistic representation, which makes it a very suggestive piece of legislation and problematic,” said Grace Hagen, who is the Director of Operations and Inclusion at the Novel Neighbor bookstore in Maplewood.

A spokesperson for the St. Charles County Parents Association (SCCPA), who have been vocally in support of the regulation under SB 775, was not able to provide an interview today, but they shared a statement in response to questions about the new law.

It reads in part:

“What we are talking about here is keeping material and influences not appropriate for children from those children. Unfortunately, we have grown adults who do not know instinctively that showing an elementary student a book about homosexual or straight sex acts is not their role or their call as an educator, so laws limiting their ability to do so are necessary. This was merely an expansion of existing laws as unfortunately bad actors in the education system do not want to follow the law.”

However, Hagen worries the law is creating more panic than good, as educators and libraries could face fines or even jail time if they violate the legislation.

“What it’s led to even just this morning, in contact with some school librarians that we’ve worked with, are librarians running around,” said Hagen. “Spending one of the first weeks of schools trying to figure out what they need to do to keep themselves out of jail or to avoid a fine and balance that with their values of providing books to children.”

Districts including Parkway, Mehlville and Rockwood have already pulled certain graphic novels off their shelves in response to the legislation.

“My concern is that the schools will censor themselves beyond even what the laws are saying because they don’t want a lawsuit or to rock the boat,” said Mandy Michel, a parent of students in the Parkway School District. “And as a result, my kids’ education will become watered down.”

Rockwood issued a statement following its decision to remove certain books from district libraries. It reads in part:

Rockwood librarians and administrators in our curriculum department carefully reviewed our collections in light of the new legislation and consulted with our legal team to identify books with images that may meet the definition of “explicit sexual material” under Section 573.550, RSMo. Those books have been removed from circulation and the list has been posted on the district website to ensure transparency with all stakeholders.

Rockwood’s compliance with the state statute does not change our vision to provide a wide range of reading materials to meet the needs of all students and our goal of universal equity, opportunity and access outlined in our strategic plan, The Way Forward. Our libraries hold more than 450,000 titles for students to choose from in grades K-12, and we will continue to ensure that all students are represented in our library collections.

The SCCPA says “school boards, teachers, and librarians should be focused on improving educational outcomes, not sexualizing young children,” and argue that “far too many “educators” are failing.”

Hagen disagrees, saying librarians do know how to manage what is age appropriate and what is not.

“Librarians are experts in this area, of knowing what to recommend, and this book might not be recommended to a first grader just like books for first graders aren’t going to get recommended to juniors in high school,” she said.

Hagen says 15 of the 22 books now banned from the Rockwood School District feature queer storylines and or people of color. This leaves parents like Simms concerned sexual images are not the only things that will face censorship as a result of this legislation.

“That more is coming, we’re going to ban other things, we’re going to take this to the public libraries, and it’s a slippery slope,” she said.

“This isn’t going to keep these images or worse ones from children. It’s just going to take away the care that librarians provide along with it,” said Hagen.

Here are what districts tell News 4 about what they’re doing in response to the state’s new law:

Rockwood

Removed the following books from district shelves:

Batman: White Knight by: Sean Murphy

Be Gay Do Comics by: The Nib

Bingo Love by: Tee Franklin, Jenn St. Onge & Joy San

Fire Force Vol. 1 by: Atsushi Okubo

Flamer by: Mike Curato

Gender Queer by: Maia Kobabe

Gilgamesh by: Andrew Winegarner

Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel) by: Renee Nault

Home After Dark by: David Small

Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human by: Erika Moen

Lighter Than My Shadow by: Katie Green

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by: Kriten Radtke

Sex Plus by: Laci Green

Sumomomo Momomo: The Strongest Bride on Earth Vol.1 by: Shinobu Ōtaka

Supermutant Magic Academy by: Jillian Tamaki

The Good Earth (Graphic Novel) by: Nick Bertozzi

The Sacrifice of Darkness by: Roxanne Gay

The Stranger by: Jacques Fernandez

The Sun and her Flowers by: Rupi Kaur

Watchmen by: Alan Moore

Why Comics? by: Hillary Chute

Zahra’s Paradise by: Amir Soltani & Khalil

Parkway

Removed the following books from district shelves:

Handmaid’s Tale (graphic novel version) by Margaret Atwood

Fun Home (graphic novel) by Alison Bechdel

Are you my Mother (graphic novel) by Alison Bechdel

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe Blankets (graphic novel) by Craig Thompson

Mehlville - “In response to the new state law, we have removed the following books from our libraries/catalogs:”

Be Gay, Do Comics

Flamer

Watchmen

The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel)

Gender Queer

St. Louis Public Schools

They tell News 4 no books have been removed and there have been no discussions at this time about removing books.