Last fall, at school board meetings across the country, parents who were upset about COVID-19 precautions began to speak out about another grievance — school library books. In the St. Louis region, groups of parents went to board meetings to read aloud passages they said were sexually explicit, calling the books “criminal.”
St. Louis Public Radio has now confirmed they were also calling the police and in one local high school in the Wentzville School District, after receiving angry voicemails, a police officer responded. He went to the library to talk to the librarian about the books in her collection after callers accused her of giving pornography to children. This happened not once, but twice during the 2021-22 school year.
While the visits did not lead to any action against the librarian or cause any materials to be removed from the collection, the presence of the police officer highlights the potential stakes under Missouri’s new law that makes it a crime to give sexually explicit material to minors. The law is a new tool for parents who want the backing of law enforcement in their fight to force schools to teach what they find appropriate. In the Wentzville district alone, the law has resulted in more than 200 books being pulled from shelves for review.
The encounters between the librarian and the officer also illustrate how police and prosecutors may be ill-equipped or disinclined to respond to complaints about what amounts to a subjective law, and how that means the law’s impact will come down to individual situations.
Two police visits
Jeffrey Cook, watch commander for the O’Fallon Police Department, said officer Scott Young, who was working at Liberty High School, went to speak to the librarian in separate incidents months apart after receiving voicemails from parents who complained about books at the library.
“His follow-up with the school librarian was for his own understanding of what the books were that the parents were making the complaints about,” Cook told St. Louis Public Radio in an email. “This was not a police matter at the time and is not a topic that our department intends on becoming involved in.”
Wentzville School District spokesperson Brynne Cramer described the visits as “informal conversations” between two coworkers. Young is a resource officer employed by both the O’Fallon Police Department and the Wentzville School District.
But the librarian felt differently about the encounters. She didn’t want to be named for this story because she was worried about her safety. Throughout the last school year, angry parents were showing up at board meetings, filing official book challenges and records requests and doing what they could to force the district to follow their wishes.
The librarian told St. Louis Public Radio that while the discussions with Young were casual, it felt “scary” and “surreal” to have a police officer walk into her library because someone accused her of giving pornography to kids.
The O’Fallon Police Department took no further action and did not file a report. The department said that from now on, the school district will handle complaints about library books.
Cook also sent a statement from St. Charles Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, who said, “it’s unlikely for law enforcement and prosecutors to get involved in cases that touch on this issue, primarily because the matter is subjective by its nature, and we’re not in the business of filing charges against school districts.”
When asked about that quote, Lohmar’s office said it was shared without permission.
Instead, the public information officer for Lohmar’s office sent a statement suggesting it could consider cases under this new law. The spokesperson said the office will review a case individually if law enforcement brings one to it.
“As with any alleged violation of criminal law, we can only respond to those cases that are formally presented to us by the appropriate law enforcement agency,” the statement said. “When that happens, we’ll review each case on its own merits. It’s nearly impossible to establish internal policies and bright-line rules until we examine the facts of each case and apply those facts to the laws in question.”
Missouri’s new law
The new Missouri law makes it illegal to provide students with visual depictions of things considered sexually explicit, including genitals and sex acts. The law took effect almost a year after the officer’s first visit. Teachers, librarians or other school officials found guilty of violating it could face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.
There was already a Missouri law against providing pornography to minors, but this law specifically criminalizes this issue in schools.
Since the law was approved, librarians across Missouri have been going through books page by page, looking for anything that could get them in trouble. In the St. Louis area this school year, at least seven school districts have removed almost 40 titles so far. The majority are graphic novels or comic books, because the law is focused on visuals.
Other school districts said they are still evaluating the law to see if anything needs to be taken from library shelves. In the Wentzville School District, an internal list shows more than 200 books have been temporarily removed for further review because of the new law.
Some titles have been removed in multiple districts, including the graphic novel versions of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Gender Queer,” “Flamer,” and “Watchmen.” The Rockwood School District has removed 22 books, more than any other district that has reported the materials that have been pulled.
While many districts received formal requests to remove books last year, most districts ultimately did not pull any materials. Some local school boards went further, voting to keep the books on library shelves.
But the Wentzville School District removed multiple titles last year, either temporarily or permanently. It was enough that the ACLU of Missouri sued the district on behalf of students over the book removals, saying they violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The judge recently denied the motion to temporarily halt Wentzville’s book removal policy.
In a statement, the ACLU of Missouri said school districts should not preemptively remove books because of Missouri’s new law.
“The new statute defines ‘explicit sexual material’ narrowly and includes broad exceptions that require materials to be considered as a whole,” wrote Tom Bastian, deputy director for communications for the ACLU of Missouri. “Furthermore, it does not criminalize materials that are currently in school libraries, as school districts already follow nationally well-established standards for selecting appropriate materials.”
Librarians said they still felt confused about what materials the law covered and worried about its implications, according to Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians.
“We do stand for intellectual freedom,” Corey said. “We do stand for the freedom to read.”
The law exempts scientific or anthropological depictions of sex-related material. And not all school districts resorted to pulling books. Both the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District and St. Louis Public Schools said they have not pulled any books.
“We don’t censor anything at this point,” said Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Bonita Jamison. “We are not changing what we do for kids because we know what they need. They are going out into a diverse society.”
Corey said school librarians receive training to make sure their collections offer age-appropriate and relevant books that represent diverse viewpoints.
“Reading is the most important way to develop empathy for others,” Corey said. “We have books being published by individuals that even 20 to 30 years ago would not have been published.”
Books about identity
Books about or written by LGBTQ people or people of color represent more than half the books that school districts pulled off shelves, according to an analysis of the titles. Many are about people coming to terms with their identities. Advocates for the new law denied that their movement targeted specific groups.
“I don’t care about sexual identity or sexual orientation,” said Andy Wells. “For me, that is not a factor.”
Wells is president of the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a national group that has a rating system for books it considers inappropriate.
State Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said he proposed the legislation because “we definitely saw a need to protect the innocence of children.”
Brattin said that parents were furious about this issue and that it has led them to support “school choice,” the political movement to divert public school funding to other school options.
“That’s why you see such a movement of parents to want school choice and want to allow them to be able to take their money they’re paying in taxes to be able to go elsewhere when this sort of nonsense is happening in the public school system ,” Brattin said. “…I think that’s the greatest way you can really right the ship on this is if you have a mass exodus of people moving out of these school districts that are doing this sort of thing.”
Wells spoke with Brattin about the new law before it was passed. Next, he wants the Missouri legislature to go further than just visuals, with a law against written text he thinks is explicit.
“This is the first, I hope, of more legislation that will get graphic information out of children’s hands,” Wells said.
Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke
This article was produced in partnership with the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.