District 200: Concerns with LGBTQ content helped spur decision to cancel author's visit
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Facing pressure from critics for canceling an author's visit, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 officials are confirming they called off the event based on both the book's LGBTQ content and a breakdown in procedures over notifying parents.
Children's author Robin Stevenson planned to talk with Longfellow Elementary students on Oct. 2 about her nonfiction book "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change," a collection of stories about the early lives and role models of 16 historical and contemporary figures.
Stevenson wrote a widely circulated letter citing a parent complaint over a chapter on pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk as the reason for the cancellation. She said she also spoke out to draw attention to broader issues of diversity and inclusion in schools.
This week, Superintendent Jeff Schuler acknowledged for the first time that stories about gender identity in the book "caused concern."
Stevenson was supposed to meet with about 175 students in third through fifth grades as educators prepare to implement a new state law requiring schools to highlight roles and contributions of LGBTQ people in American history and culture.
"One of the topics in the book that we felt caused concern was gender identity," Schuler told a former student in an email. "That is a topic that will be included in curriculum programs next year, but that work is not complete.
"It is important to us that we take a thoughtful approach to this topic and introduce it in a supported environment for our students as we do other topics in our curriculum. I did not feel like we were prepared for this or had provided context or notification to our parents. I regret the narrative this late cancellation led to in our community as that narrative has clearly hurt valued members of our community."
Schuler pointed to a chapter about Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist who made history during the first season of the FX series "Pose" as the first transgender woman of color to write and direct a TV episode.
"The topic itself is not inherently controversial," Schuler told the Daily Herald. "But for us, I think it's a question of at what age is that topic introduced. It's not currently in our curriculum, and it's not currently a topic that's discussed across the system with students starting in third grade."
Stevenson called on the district to "consider the importance of LGBTQ representation for students at all grade levels" and strongly disagrees "with the view that the topic of transgender rights is not appropriate for fourth- and fifth-grade students."
"Some students have transgender parents or family members, and many trans kids come out in elementary school -- and they need to be in school environments that acknowledge and respect trans identities," she said in an email Wednesday. "They need to see people like themselves in books, and they need language to better understand their own experiences. Books can help provide this. Books can also help educate their peers, so that trans kids are more likely to be accepted and understood.
"I've heard from trans students and graduates from this district that have not felt seen, validated or respected in their schools. I am glad to hear that this district is discussing how to approach this issue in a thoughtful way."
Stevenson said she's "glad the district is now acknowledging it did cancel because of LGBTQ content in the book." But she said she wasn't even planning to talk about Mock or Milk during what was supposed to be a one-hour presentation.
She wanted to focus on civil rights activists -- Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin -- as well as environmental issues because the timing was around the climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. The school, Stevenson said, was aware of that because she provided a list of the activists included in her presentation at its request.
But district officials canceled the talk hours before Stevenson's scheduled arrival.
"We assume that if it's an author coming in to discuss a book, any of the content of the book is a potential presentation topic, and we've got to be comfortable with that," Schuler said.
The district initially blamed the decision on the "lack of appropriate notification of the author's visit." The day before her scheduled visit, a parent contacted Longfellow administrators "with concerns about the process we utilize to inform parents about author visits and the contents of the presentation and promotion," district spokeswoman Erica Loiacono said last week.
Administrators reviewed the content of the book relative to two policies, Schuler said. One addresses the process for parents requesting to exempt their children from a particular instructional material or program, and the other is meant to ensure school presentations of "controversial or sensitive topics" are age-appropriate and consistent with curriculum.
"Given the target age range of the kids that were coming to the presentation, I don't know that we took the steps we needed to adequately describe the potential content of the discussion," Schuler said. "And candidly we want to make sure we approach instruction with our students in a thoughtful way and that we do it in the right way with our staff."
Naperville-based Anderson's Bookstore arranged Stevenson's talk. Angie Gaul, the store's coordinator of author appearances in schools for about a decade, said the district's statement was the first time she heard there was a notification process concerning the content of the visits.
For author events in schools, Anderson's creates a book order form and did so for Longfellow on Sept. 5. The flyer provided a description of the book and a list of all 16 activists. The form also included an image of the cover, which shows an illustration of Milk -- the first openly gay elected official in the history of California -- holding a rainbow flag. The books were delivered to Longfellow Elementary at 10:21 a.m. Sept. 23.
Longfellow's librarian requested Stevenson's talk based on an email Gaul sent out with all possible author hosting opportunities to all the schools she works with through Anderson's. Stevenson's book is recommended for ages 9 to 12.
The afternoon before the visit, Gaul said Longfellow's librarian told her she was told by the administration to ask specifically if Harvey Milk would be covered in the presentation after a parent raised a concern about that chapter.
Marie Gorman, 26, said the canceled event has been a painful reminder of what she experienced as an LGBTQ young person in the district. The Longfellow alum, now a student affairs professional in Washington, D.C., said it was disheartening to read Schuler's response this week to Gorman's questions about the decision.
"Based on my interactions, I don't get the impression that the higher-ups making decisions see introducing conversations about gender and sexuality, as well as just better integrating the experiences of LGBTQ people into history lessons, as a priority," Gorman said. "I think they see it as something that should be optional, that is controversial and that people should have the right to only engage in at their level of comfort, and that makes me deeply sad."
Stevenson said she hadn't heard from anyone from the school or district until she sent the open letter, although she can easily be reached through social media and her website. She's received requests to speak in the suburbs, including one from a District 200 parent who had found an LGBTQ-friendly community venue in town. She lives in Canada but says she is hoping to return to the Chicago area.