Book Ban Vote Unleashes Mayhem at Spring Lake Michigan School Board Meeting

A Michigan school board meeting over the fate of a controversial library book went off-the-rails Monday evening, with impassioned speakers airing their outrage and pushing political agendas.

The raucous crowd became so wild that board members were forced to abruptly end the discussion—after voting to severely restrict students’ access to the book, Gender Queer: A Memoir.

The Spring Lake School Board held a meeting Monday to discuss students’ access to the graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, superintendent Dennis Furton told The Daily Beast. The book has notoriously been banned in schools around the country, with many parents and community members claiming its sexual content is inappropriate for students. The coming-of-age story details Kobabe’s nonbinary experience, and has been praised for helping other nonbinary children better understand themselves.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Furton said a review committee initially dismissed a parent’s complaint about Gender Queer and chose to keep the book on district shelves. However, the parent filed an appeal to the board of education, which led to the district vote on Monday.

“In this particular instance, that complainant handled everything very maturely, very diplomatically, but he did express his concerns about the book,” Furton said.

He explained that some parents and students showed up to Monday night’s meeting to plead with board members to keep the book on library shelves.

But, in a 4-3 vote, the board ultimately chose to restrict access to Gender Queer.

According to Furton, students will now be put in touch with a school counselor if they want to check out the book. The counselor will then contact students’ parents or guardians for permission to let them check out the book.

“We don’t want to make this difficult. I think that students, young people who express an interest in the book because they want to learn about themselves and they want to learn about some of their peers,” Furton explained, “they’re going to have access and their parent is going to have the option of either supporting that or denying it. And that’s about the best we can do under these circumstances.”

The superintendent also explained that a process was already in place where parents could prevent their child from reading certain books by contacting the district’s libraries.

“We’ve got protections in place to address this issue in a number of different ways,” he said. “There’s no reason for the ugliness.”

Board member Kathy Breen, who was on the original review committee and voted in favor of keeping the graphic novel, said she can understand parents’ concerns over the book’s sexually explicit images—but believes the subject matter could help some students.

“I think for the audience that it is intended, it isn’t offensive,” she told The Daily Beast. “It might make them feel uncomfortable, but they were uncomfortable in their skin already. They’re looking for answers. I think the book helps.”

“Yes, this book might not be for me, but it is maybe for someone else,” she added. “And I don’t want to take it away from them.”

Furton said that after the vote on Monday evening, speakers had the opportunity to share public comments to the board and meeting attendees. That’s when things spiraled out of control.

“That’s really kind of the crux of when things went bad,” he said. “Things got kind of ugly.”

Furton said Spring Lake School Board President Jennifer Nicles introduced guidelines for speakers to make public comments, but many attendees were upset with a three-minute speaking limit.

“The first speaker began, and, at the three minute mark…I told her that every time was up, and she refused to stop and members of the audience who were there to support her position tried to shout me down,” Furton said. “She went on and we, again, asked her to stop and she refused.”

According to local news outlet WZZM 13, that parent wanted the book banned from the district entirely. But Nicles said speakers on both sides of the issue lost all sense of orderliness. Breen told The Daily Beast she had never experienced a school board meeting that “crazy.”

“Really, all decorum began to break down at that point in time as people in the audience stood, yelled, gestured,” Furton added. “There were probably a couple hundred people, maybe 200 people there last night.”

As things got totally out of hand, Furton said the board announced a recess so that members could break and then attempt to regain control of the room.

“Two of the board members commented to me that they felt a little bit fearful for their own safety,” Furton said.

Nicles told The Daily Beast that she felt helpless.

“I did not like what I was seeing,” she said.

After the break, the board unsuccessfully tried to continue the meeting. Furton said another speaker even began shouting their comments without a microphone.

“It was very theatrical,” he said.

At that point, the board decided to adjourn the meeting.

Nicles said the adults at the meeting were supposed to set an example for the students. Instead, she said she was disheartened that the chaos prevented students from being heard. The whole ordeal kept her from sleeping Monday night.

“I think we have some work to do in our community to come together. I’m happy to try to do that. But it can’t be just one person. It has to be the community,” Nicles told The Daily Beast.

Nicles, who voted in favor of limited access for Gender Queerlater released a statement on social media that she also shared with The Daily Beast regarding the board’s decision.

“Our board was divided and I respect each one of my fellow board members’ positions,” she wrote. “I know this decision was not easy for anyone. Allowing our counselors, social workers and school psychologists to have access to this book if a student requests it seemed like a compromise. However, I also know this decision can be seen as simply another hurdle for a student in need. …I will follow up with our media specialist to make sure that there are other resources for LGBTQ+ students in place to help fill the void left from removing [Gender Queer] from the library shelf.”

Breen felt the attempt to ban the book was just a political tactic.

“I think that the book isn’t really the issue. In this area, there is a very organized, coordinated effort by a group that…say they are all about restoring the rights of parents,” Breen said. “I think the book sure some people legitimately may not care for it, but I feel like the book was just another tool to create some chaos.”

Both Nicles and Furton believe the meeting was particularly chaotic due to the upcoming elections.

“A few years ago, we didn’t need anybody to report on school board meetings because there was nothing interesting going on,” Furton said. “[School board meetings have] become the focal point for a lot of political activity.”

“It feels to me like there’s a lot of political drive with this,” Nicles echoed. “It’s not unique to Spring Lake, and I don’t think we wouldn’t see the same things that are happening across the US”

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