ASHLAND -- A children’s book describing the life of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who championed LGBT rights, landed squarely in the center of controversy at one Hanover County elementary school late last month.
According to reports, a second grade teacher at Henry Clay Elementary School read the book, “Pride: The story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” by Rob Sanders aloud to her class about two weeks ago.
A parent of a child in that class objected to what she considered controversial or sensitive material being read to her child without her knowledge.
She contacted a local television reporter who aired a story on the parents’ complaints, alerting school officials to the problem.
Principal Terri Keck immediately responded to the complaint with a letter to all parents alerting them of the incident and explaining the county’s policy on controversial or sensitive material.
That policy has been revised in recent years, but basically requires teachers to obtain pre-approval for supplementary lessons or materials that might be controversial or considered sensitive from the principal or a designee. If the lesson is approved, a letter is sent to parents making them aware of the impending presentation and allowing their children to opt for alternative assignments.
The child’s mother cited religious reasons for her concern and stated that some of the artwork in the book confused her daughter.
Hanover County Public Schools officials issued no opinion regarding the book, but the letter indicated the county’s policy was not followed in this case.
“In this case, the book, which tells the story of the rainbow flag becoming a symbol of equality for the LGBT community, was not vetted through the appropriate process at our school,” Keck wrote in the March 31 letter. “It is also not a part of our curriculum.”
The letter also noted that parents were not pre-notified of the lesson as required by the policy.
But some parents who also have children enrolled in the class objected to the sensitive or controversial label being applied to this selection, and they took advantage of a public comment period at last week’s Hanover County School Board meeting to express their concerns.
Colleen Berry, the parent of a Hanover County graduate and one child still in the public school division, asked why the book in question would be considered controversial or sensitive.
“This book is not about sex or sexuality, nor does it have violent content,” Berry said. “It is a book about identity history and human rights.”
Berry said there was no need for the book to be vetted and recognized for excellence among several organizations.
“This book has already been vetted and seems to be the subject of a disparate process than other books in our schools,” Nicole Rossi said.
Rossi noted that teachers routinely make decisions in their classrooms as to the appropriateness of material.
She also objected to the nature of the offended parent’s complaint and its reference to religious objections.
“We may not censure our children’s educations based on someone’s religious beliefs,” she said.
Michelle Blakey joined other speakers in support of the teacher in question and her decision to read the book to her students.
Her son is a student in the class and she provided background information on the incident, telling school board members the teacher used the book as a teaching took while responding to an incident involving bullying in her class.
“A child was called gay and a derogatory term and she took it as an educational event,” Blakey said.
Blakey also objected to the policy and the subjectiveness of terms sensitive and controversial.
“The Junior Library Review said this biography has no sensitive areas,” she said.
She also objected to the religious nature of the complaint.
“When you heard this was a religious issue, you should have stopped there and said ‘I’m sorry but this is a public school and we separate church and state’,” Blakey said.
Superintendent Michael Gill addressed the controversy at the conclusion of the public comment period, and said the department had received numerous phone calls and emails on both sides of this issue.
Gill said many expressed views similar to the ones voiced during the comment period, while others objected to the book’s illustrations and thought the sensitive subject was better discussed at home with their 7- to 8-year-old students.
Gill said the letter was an explanation of county policy and recognition that this material was not vetted by the principal.
“It is not in any way reflective of not being an inclusive community or an inclusive school for each and every student,” Gill said.
He also acknowledged the passion surrounding this issue and the views expressed by the speakers.
The superintendent encouraged follow-up meetings with school officials.
“We are happy to continue this conversation. We are happy to do so in order to better understand perspectives on this issue.”