In “Polar Bear in Love” — perhaps the less offensive of the two books Orange Unified parents have complained about — a baby seal becomes the object of a grown bear’s ardent affections.
“One look and my heart was no longer my own,” a parent read aloud to the school board recently, quoting the bear. “A figure with contours so smooth I want to touch them. A pure white beautiful body. … When you grow up, let’s get married.”
It didn’t help that both beasts were male, and that the book was available to second-graders.
Another parent found “The Music of What Happens,” a young adult book about LGBTQ kids falling in love, on her second-grader’s school-issued iPad. She read a string of sexually explicit and/or obscenity-laden quotes to the board, as well as mentions of penetration, wet dreams and rape.
At a marathon, contentious, six-hour board meeting on Jan. 19, both parents demanded that the Orange Unified School District do a better job policing content on library apps used by students. Turns out “The Music of What Happens” was incorrectly labeled as a primary grade book by its publisher and no one caught the error. It was removed from the platform the next day, officials said.
The controversial interim superintendent — put in place by the new conservative-majority board after it ditched the former district leadership in what’s been called a winter break “ambush” — took further action nonetheless.
“As one of my first actions, I would like to assure our families that the Sora digital library app will be suspended districtwide starting Monday, January 30, while we investigate concerns that have been brought to my attention,” interim Superintendent Edward Velasquez wrote in an email to staff and parents.
“Virtual libraries are a critical resource for students to utilize, but they must have the proper safeguards in place to allow parents to choose what they feel is appropriate for their child and ensure students are protected from content that is not age-appropriate. I am working with staff to make certain that our students have access to a digital library that allows parents to have oversight as to what types of content their student(s) can access and does not allow access to material that is inappropriate for each child’s grade level.
“Moving forward, a committee will be formed to review app content before apps are approved for installation on student devices.”
Orange Unified finds itself as a microcosm of a national civil war over public education. Conservatives, like the new board majority, want parents to have more power over what their kids learn and read. Progressives, like the new minority, want schools to reflect the real world and treat those who walk to the beat of a different drummer with acceptance. Nobody wants sexually explicit or obscenity-laced language on a second-grader’s iPad.
But, in this action, some see darker forces at work.
“We had fears about what would come next,” said Michelle Weisenberg, who’s heading a recall effort aimed at the new board majority.
“We know, from how things are playing out across the country, that the steps that come next are the book banning, the elimination of sex ed and ethnic studies. We knew this was coming.”
The Sora app doesn’t make recommendations, she said, and she had to search for the book by title to find it. “You wouldn’t just stumble across it,” she said. “I suspect somebody told somebody that the book was there — go find it and go read it at the district meeting.”
“The Music of What Happens” is gone, so why a deep dive into the app is necessary is a bit of a mystery to her.
It’s a mystery to Board Member Kris Erickson as well.
“The analogy I use is that, when you walk into a physical library and find an inappropriate book in the children’s section, you take it off the shelf and hand it to the librarian to put in the proper place,” Erickson said. “You don’t shut down the whole library.”
She’s withholding judgment until she gets more information, but understands people’s fears that the committee might open the door to censorship. It’s unclear who will be on it, or what exactly it will be doing.
The interim superintendent was traveling Monday and wasn’t available to answer questions, district officials said.
Darshan Bryant Smaaladen is concerned about what they want to leave out.
“They want to control the books,” she said. “The desire for parents to have transparency about what their child is checking out and accessing is valid — an email informing you your child has checked out X or Y. But we can’t limit access. Who decides? I think this is grandstanding. It is further reckless behavior that throws our district into chaos.”
The district has had a $30,000 contract with OverDrive, the parent company of the Sora library app, for several years and has renewed it annually in January. It hasn’t yet come to the board for approval, further fueling fears.
There were hundreds of outraged comments on social media platforms Sunday. “Funny how the complainers want more ‘parental involvement,’ but seem confused that they’d actually have to look at what their kid is reading & discuss it to be, you know, involved…you don’t ban access to books,” one parent wrote in an OUSD Facebook group.
“To get rid of that for all students all because of one stupid book is outrageous,” a librarian said on Reddit.
But parents also came to the board’s defense.
“They are reviewing the books and content to make sure it is age-appropriate and not porn,” one said.
“This isn’t book banning or censorship,” wrote another. “This is ensuring age appropriate materials remain where they should be. The jumping to conclusions and projections aren’t helping anyone’s cause. Typically the right answer avails itself.”
He posted a follow-up from the interim superintendent assuring people that the intent is not to ban books, but to provide parents a means of control over what their children can access. Sora might be able to do that.
Orange is becoming the county’s Florida, several quipped. Some maintain that this fight is, at its heart, a charter vs. public school battle, and several of the parents who spoke in support of the board and the new superintendent at the marathon Jan. 19 meeting were from a charter that has left the district’s oversight for the more conservative Orange County Board of Education. One suggested that all the teachers speaking against the board should be fired.
“The board majority … are part of a national extremist right-wing campaign to destabilize, chip away at and ultimately destroy public education and replace it with taxpayer-funded religious dogma,” parent Gregory Pleasants said at the board meeting.
State Sen. Dave Min has gotten involved. Parents question whether the school board violated the Brown Act when it fired the two top administrators. They also question one board member’s previous relationship with the interim superintendent. The recall effort — Citizens for the Recall of Ledesma, Ortega, Miner and Rumsey — is building a website and raising money for petitions it expects to deliver in March. And the First Amendment Coalition, a free speech nonprofit, chastised a board member for threatening public speakers who did not speak kindly of the board’s integrity.
“(C)ritique of elected officials is democracy, not defamation,” the FAC wrote.
Source: Orange County Register
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