County Seat Newspaper
of Clare County

BOE Balances Books Brouhaha

Superintendent Responds, Clarifies, Suggests Policy Expansion


HARRISON – In recent weeks, parents and others in the community have expressed concern via social media about two books that had been read aloud in the Harrison Community Schools District. Those titles are “In Our Mothers’ House” by Patricia Polacco and the critically acclaimed picture book “Julián Is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love. Both titles had been construed by some as seeking to sexualize and potentially “groom” children, making them vulnerable to suggestion or predators.

At the April 10 HCS Board of Education meeting, public comment time was made available for people to address the board regarding the issue. It was made clear that each would have three minutes to speak, that comments were to be directed to the board, and that their comments would be addressed during Superintendent’s Report later in the meeting.

That said, the first person to speak was Mark DeYoung, who couched his remarks by saying he was chairman of the Clare Republican Party [actually co-chair with Bronwyn Asplund] and that he represents 3,000 residents of Hayes Township and that he had received several complaints from parents regarding books that are being given to 10-year-olds in regard to lesbian relationships and gay relationships. He asked if this was true and where that belongs in the schools and at that age? DeYoung said that school to him was reading, writing, arithmetic, science, civics, etc. DeYoung said he has a family member who is gay, so he is not biased in that regard, as that is an individual’s “lifestyle” choice. His concern was that it was being pushed onto 10-year-olds.

For clarity, DeYoung was elected as the Hayes Republican delegate to the county convention, which is not a law-making body. That did not keep him from threatening that if the school board members did not respond in accordance with the wishes of those objecting to the district’s educational practices, they would be subject to recall.

“We do have that power,” he said. “And we have it all lined up to go, so I’m just wondering if you guys have the answers that I can take back to my constituents.”

That not-so-veiled threat was addressed by Durga, who clarified that the elected school board positions are non-partisan, and the issue at hand was not political.

Second to address the board was Sandra Bristol, retired educator and former county commissioner, who spoke in support of the school district staff overall and especially the upper elementary, as that was her teaching experience.

“I respect what the teachers are teaching and bringing forth to the children,” she said. “I have complete trust in what they bring forth: that it’s good for them as children, as future citizens. And I believe that our fifth-grade teachers especially, are the most thoughtful, caring teachers in the district, and I totally support whatever happens there that they do. And I believe in the curriculum put forth by the State of Michigan, too.”

Next to speak was Erick Sizemore who described himself as being a successful engineer and as a Harrison Schools graduate who “barely got out alive.” He complained of problems in the district when he was in school, problems which he said still continue. Sizemore spoke of previous meeting remarks regarding the mental health harm caused by what is seen on social media, and decried teaching about transgenderism as equally harmful. Sizemore then stated as fact that “It is 100% a mental disorder to think that you are not biologically what you were born into.”

He then spoke of the shared knowledge of biology classes and the awareness of male and female, adding that it is known everywhere but in fifth grade. He stated his child will attend school in Harrison, but if it is not addressed by the time she reaches fifth grade, she will not attend fifth grade in Harrison. Sizemore also noted that the school district depends on its per-pupil education allowance from the state, and that parents pulling their children out would hurt the district financially.

Interestingly, Sizemore cited his many family members who are transgendered, gay and lesbian, and the fact that he loves them and attends Gay Pride Month in New York City every year just to celebrate it. “Because I think it’s wonderful to be who you are and love anybody you want,” he said. “But I don’t teach my children; I don’t push it down their throat. It’s disgraceful that y’all are letting it happen, and you’re not doing anything about it … and I promise you, if nothing’s done about it, we’ll be here next month.”

Kasie Cooper spoke next, beginning with her own status as a HHS graduate, adding she had graduated five students who ranged from valedictorian to almost what Sizemore had referred to as “drop out losers.” She added that she was third in her class, had never left Harrison, and having started out at Mid Michigan College, had transferred to university where she obtained a master’s degree in social work, and is now actively involved in her community. Cooper noted that she, too, has a diverse family and wanted to thank the school board and the other parents who support the school board. She added that, as a parent of five adopted children, she appreciated the sharing of books about adoption.

“They were excited to see someone just like them in a book,” she said. “And I just wanted to thank you for doing that.”

She then offered apology for those who were giving the schools grief, as she didn’t think they understood the information.

“And I encourage them all to read the book,” she said. “Because there’s nothing about gays, lesbians or transgender, and if you’re concerned about that, just tell your kids to not be gay.”

Grace Dingo spoke appreciatively of the school’s use of “In Our Mothers’ House” as it offered “something to make my child, family members and I feel normal.” She went on to say the whole community is not just mom and dad but is comprised of many different households: split households, weekend at moms/weekend at dad’s, adoptions, interracial. “It’s not just a mom and dad type society,” Dingo said.

Brian Noel, who had previously interviewed for a vacated school board position, presented both pro and con. First acknowledging the board has a difficult job, he moved on to saying he knows two children who are almost bullied into being bisexual or trisexual by classmates, to the point they are receiving counseling. Noel said he was attending because he wanted to ensure children are not bullied because they are not gay, or whatever the chosen terminology.

“Everyone’s choice is their choice – I accept that fully,” he said. “I want to make sure the schools are protecting all children, not just the children who choose a different lifestyle,” he said. “The role of the school is to educate and protect. Way too many bullies are being protected and allowed to stay in school. If it’s brought up to the school or the superintendent, actions need to be taken. There are children out there who are afraid to come to school because they are being bullied – both heterosexual and homosexual. If you have a policy, it needs to be across the board, period.”

Angela Vanburen thanked all the teachers for giving kids books that show inclusion and love. “Because if any of you have an opinion on this and you haven’t actually read the book, you will be shocked at how beautiful it actually was,” she said. “And there was nothing in that book about their sexuality. It was two people who love each other raising children they adopted. And I will always, always, always support our teachers.” Vanburen added that she, too, is a HHS graduate and has a student graduating this year with honors. “And I think it’s gross that you can stand up here and spew hate. If your problem is with the fact there were gay or lesbian people in a book, that is not a problem with the morals in the book; you’re showing your homophobia.”

Ashley Sizemore stood to refute the “spewing hate” remarks and when directed to address the board rather than individual audience members, retorted that earlier remarks had been directed to her husband in the audience. Durga apologized for not having caught that. Sizemore went onto object to her 7-year-old daughter being exposed to any sexuality, who she said refers to “going to homo class.” She said no elementary student needs to know about sexuality, be it lesbian, gay or transgender, and that it was “not homophobia.”

Throughout, Durga was compelled to gavel down out-of-order remarks and questions called out from the audience, admonishing that their time to address the board had passed, and to allow others to speak as they had been allowed to speak. Also, that if they wished to address each other, it needed to be done outside the meeting.

When the Superintendent’s Report portion of the meeting arrived, Walton began her address of the comments by noting that the district has a non-discrimination policy which includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

“It’s something we’re aware of in our schools, making sure we’re not discriminating on the basis,” she said, adding reference to Policy No. 31115. “We do recognize those categories, because by law those are legal categories.”

Walton then referenced a prior conversation with DeYoung, who at the time of the conversation did not have the name of the book or teacher. She had told him to have the person with the concern contact her, but she had not been contacted. DeYoung said the person had called, and had been hung up on by Larson Principal Andrea Andera.

Walton reiterated that she, herself, had not been contacted and moved on to address some questions which had been raised regarding the fourth-grade program “Puberty the Wonder Years” that happened March 24 at Larson. She said there had been a multi-page letter sent home to parents the week of March 6 which included an opt-out form, as required by the state. There also had been a thrillshare message sent to all fourth-grade parents to inform the letter was coming home, and to tell them to fill out the form or call the office if they did not want their child to participate. Walton said the letter also made clear parents could come in any time prior to review the materials if they so wished. She said parents’ wish to opt their child out is honored, and as per state law it is absolutely the parents’ right to do so.

She then addressed the two books she had chats with people about, noting first that “In Our Mothers’ House” was a read aloud in a fifth-grade classroom in February, and “Julián Is a Mermaid” which had been read aloud during the first two weeks of school. She described the first book as being about what makes a family is love.

“It doesn’t matter what we look like,” Walton said. “Whether we’re biologically born to our parents, whether we’re adopted.”

She went on to describe the “Julián” book as being largely illustrations, with not much text.

“It’s really about a grandmother [abuela] indulging her grandson’s imagination as they see the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island in New York – which is an actual thing that happens at Coney Island Amusement Park every year,” Walton said. “And seeing people dressed up as that and wanting to imagine himself that way, as well.”

She said no book report had been requested of any student, nor mandatory sexuality reading in any grade, adding that of the 180-plus days of classroom book read aloud with kids, those two books represent roughly 1.5% of the total books that have been or will be read aloud to students by the end of the school year.

“We do know that one of the most important purposes of diverse literature is meant to help every single child see themselves and their families in at least one book in our school,” Walton said. “And as we prepare each child to be college- and career-ready, we know that they’re going to go into a world with workplaces, or into college in the classrooms, with people who may be perhaps a lot different than they are and represent a very diverse part of the world – and they have to be able to learn and work together.

“We know that through reading and listening, our students are able to actively understand other perspectives and cultures, and to be able to communicate effectively with people of very different backgrounds.”

She added that people’s shared joy of reading allows them to inhabit various worlds and have experiences much different from their own. Walton said, the school wants books to be age and developmentally appropriate, and reiterated there were no mandatory readings. She also noted a parent’s concern about a book required to be read in another fifth-grade classroom, adding that the book that was read during intervention time was a ghost story and had nothing to do with sexuality.

“There was a lot of misinformation out there,” she said.

Walton then recommended to the board that in future the district create a book review policy, so that if a parent wants to challenge a book – whether a textbook or any book used in class – that there be an objective process for a parent to bring that issue forward. She suggested there might be a group of stakeholders who could look at the book, view it, go through it, then make their own recommendation to the BOE.

“I think that’s something important for the parents to have, to know there’s a process in place,” she said, adding that it protects teachers, parents and students.

It was clarified that, by BOC policy, parents currently have the right to see anything that is being used in class by making an appointment with the principal to review materials.

Walton said her previous suggestion adds to that, by enabling a process by which objection can be made using a consistent procedural standard. She further explained that policy allows a parent/guardian to observe the classroom of their enrolled and (in attendance that day) student – something that also requires an appointment.

In response to a clarification request from Durga, Walton explained that a principal had received a phone call in February about “In Our Mothers’ House” from someone who was yelling at the principal. After the principal stated the conversation would have to be conducted with civility – and the caller persisted in yelling/cursing – the principal stated the conversation would end and did indeed hang up.

Walton said she requests principals to always let her know when such events occur.

“I have said to them, you do not have to suffer being yelled at or having profane language used at you,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to them to be yelled at. I understand there’s a lot of emotion in this – these are our kids, we would do anything for them – but we also want to make sure those conversations can be had so that facts can be shared.”

At the close of the meeting, board trustee Betsy Ulicki added her own take on the meeting, and her appreciation for all the parents who had attended to voice their concern and involvement.

“I know it was over a very heated topic,” she said. “But I hope and wish that parents will continue to come to meetings and not just when there’s something on social media. I appreciate everybody coming, and hope we see full seats every month.”

Ulicki also reiterated that the school board seats are not politically based.

“It’s non-partisan, we don’t run as a certain party as a school board member,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to recognize that. No one on this board is here for a political reason, or elected as a political party. I always want to make decisions based on facts, and I think it’s important that’s talked about.”


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