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Controversial book brings passionate speakers to Unit 5 board meeting

Toni Gorrell addresses the Unit 5 school board during its meeting Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Normal Community West High School cafeteria.
Michele Steinbacher
Toni Gorrell addresses the Unit 5 school board during its meeting Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, at the Normal Community West High School cafeteria.

A Unit 5 school board meeting with a light agenda ended up lasting more than two hours Wednesday night, after social media attention to an illustrated LGBTQ memoir led to passionate public commenters sharing views on the matter.

While several people brought other concerns to the board — such as their opinions on student masking requirements or school buses' tardiness — the majority of commenters focused on the book "Gender Queer" and whether that, or other such books, were appropriate for teens to access on school grounds.

Maia Kobabe's award-winning graphic-novel style memoir is among the Normal Community West High School library’s collection.

Also at the meeting, the board heard an update on efforts to recruit and retain more substitute teachers; and approved the purchase of activity buses for its three junior high schools.

Teen book offerings focus of debate

Superintendent Kristen Weikle said based on social media chatter, she knew many people would want to address library collections on Wednesday. Book challenges are happening across the country in a loosely coordinated effort, including against "Gender Queer," according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. The office calls it a "dangerous fad."

Weikle reminded the crowd that Unit 5's certified librarians use professional industry guidance in selecting books, and that those librarians strive to offer books to meet the needs of all Unit 5 students, and reflect society's diversity.

Weikle noted books in the libraries are not required reading — they are optional.

“Not all of our families share the same beliefs and outlooks, and while it is right and appropriate for parents and guardians to have input over the choices for their own children regarding their reading materials, they cannot make those decisions for other families," she said.

If a person has an issue with a particular title, “Unit 5 has procedures in place to address those concerns in a civil and productive way,” she said, directing attention to a table with copies of the district’s “request for consideration of materials" form.

Of the two dozen people who signed up for public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, 17 people addressed the book. Of those, the majority —12 people, including several recent Normal West graduates — spoke in favor of wanting Unit 5 to embrace books such as "Gender Queer."

Commenter Zach Carlson called the complaints about the book nonsense, and applauded the school district for encouraging its educators to use best practices for determining library collections.

2017 Normal West graduate Kenzie Todd, who founded that school's Pride club, told the board she read Kobabe's book as a high school junior, and found it appropriate. She asked the board members to read it themselves, and disagreed with critics' depictions of the book as pornography.

Other former students echoed Todd's comments about critics' views the book shouldn't be available.

“It is a case study in fundamentalist pearl clutching,” said Amanda Breeden, a 2016 Normal West graduate.

Dave Bentlin, a Normal resident, who spoke on behalf of the Prairie Pride Coalition, said the opposition Wednesday night stemmed from a very small group of people — some even from outside McLean County — trying to stir up controversy.

He said they were maligning and misrepresenting the memoir — a book, that in his opinion, could help teens who were navigating their own identities.

“By sharing their story, the author lets them know they are not alone,” said Bentlin, who added that such books can help a casual reader better understand other people’s lives.

Among those opposing the book's presence in the high school was commenter Mary Carlisle, who accused the school board of having no moral compass. She said allowing "Gender Queer" and books like it amounted to offering pornography to Unit 5 students.

"Gender Queer" wasn't the only LGBTQ book targeted Wednesday. Toni Gorrell, who said her grandchildren attend Unit 5 schools, read the board a profanity-filled section, detailing sex acts, from the book “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

But Unit 5 parent Erin Donaldson said she was proud of the school district for being inclusive. Donaldson said part of a teen’s reading experience should be learning about a wide range of characters, as well as real-world situations such as sexuality, substance abuse, and racial tensions. Such books can help students develop empathy, or maybe hold up a mirror to their own experiences.

She told critics, “If you don’t like these books, don’t read them. If you don’t want your kids to read them, tell them.”

Dennis Grundler told the board he understands wanting to have different points of views out there. But after looking at “Gender Queer,” he was concerned it was inappropriate for teenagers.

“I’m not talking about the words. I’m talking about the pictures,” he said, suggesting Unit 5 put ratings on the books, similar to the ones the Motion Picture Association of America uses for films, such as R, or PG-13.

Although school board president Amy Roser urged civility before the comment period began, several speakers refused to stop talking when their allotted three-minute time ended. During one such moment, an area of the crowd began heckling the speaker, who yelled back.

So Roser interrupted and declared the board in recess, at which time the members left the Normal West cafeteria. The meeting resumed about 10 minutes later, when the board returned.

Substitute teachers

Roger Baldwin and Megan Peterson, of Unit 5’s human resources department, led a presentation about the district’s substitute teacher situation.

On an average day this fall, Unit 5 could use 28 more substitutes than are available, they said. Put another way, for every 10 subs needed, only seven are found. In the cases where no sub is available, administrators step in, or teachers share duties to provide coverage.

Roser noted that’s unfortunate, as teachers and staff already are working in a stressed environment this year.

Peterson said Unit 5 is working to recruit and retain more substitutes. She described a pilot program in which Unit 5 employs a few full-time substitutes, who have a home base school and reporting Monday through Friday. They then cover a handful of elementary schools.

The district also has surveyed previous substitute teachers, started a monthly newsletter dedicated to subs, and sought feedback from the labor market, she said. One hurdle some applicants report are required state fees.

In other business, the council approved:

  • A roughly $120,000 contract with Midwest Transit Equipment to purchase three used 14-passenger Chevy buses. Evans, Kingsley and Chiddix junior high schools each will get one to help transport students and staff on field trips and extracurricular activities.
  • A $20,000 donation from the State Farm Enterprise to help fund a walking path near Cedar Ridge Elementary School. 
  • The donation of a bench to be placed outside Parkside Elementary School in honor of Emma Welp. A Parkside first grader last year, she died May 23, following an illness. 

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.