Author believes Dist. 200 canceled Wheaton school visit due to LGBTQ content; officials cite procedural issue
A children's book author is upset and disappointed that Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 abruptly canceled her visit to an elementary school for what she believes are parental objections to LGBTQ content in her collection of stories about prominent activists.
Canadian writer Robin Stevenson planned to talk with Longfellow Elementary students about her book, "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change." One chapter focuses on the early life of pioneering gay rights politician Harvey Milk.
An illustration of Milk -- the first openly gay elected official in the history of California -- appears on the cover, holding a rainbow flag, next to Martin Luther King Jr.
Officials expressed regret for the cancellation, but attributed it to a procedural issue. A statement Wednesday said the school failed to follow policies meant to inform parents "well in advance" of author visits and the content of the book being presented.
"The event was not canceled because Harvey Milk is a character in the book," district spokeswoman Erica Loiacono wrote Wednesday via email.
But that doesn't convince Stevenson, who is gay and has heard from district employees and students since she wrote an open letter Tuesday to the school board and Superintendent Jeff Schuler raising concerns about the decision, the district's curriculum and its support for LGBTQ students.
"I wasn't really anticipating any challenges with the book to be honest," Stevenson said. "These are all very well-known activists. Harvey Milk is obviously a very significant American figure. He was given a Presidential Medal of Honor by Barack Obama. He's certainly someone I think is very well known and that students should be learning about."
Becky Anderson, the owner of Anderson's Bookshops, which was sponsoring the Oct. 2 event, said she was "horrified" by the district's decision.
She said this is only the third time in the roughly 30 years her store has sponsored in-school author appearances a district has pulled the plug on a visit.
"We definitely are on board with the author and her stance on this," she said. "I feel badly for the kids who missed a great author visit."
In her presentation, Stevenson was going to talk about great activists, Anderson said, but didn't even plan to mention Milk, who was assassinated in 1978.
"It discourages me and makes me sad," she said.
Stevenson said she planned to talk to students in upper elementary grades about historical figures you'd find in textbooks -- King, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks -- and more contemporary activists such as Autumn Peltier and Dolores Huerta.
"Everything seemed fine until the day before my talk, at which point Anderson's contacted the publisher and asked if Harvey Milk was included in the book and that was the same time that the vice principal emailed me for a description of the talk," she said. "And my publisher emailed me for a list of which activists were included in the presentation, and then the next thing I heard was that the talk had been canceled."
Stevenson said she told the vice principal she would also discuss her writing process and some of the themes in "Kid Activists."
Since sharing her letter on her website, which also provides resources for LGBTQ students and teachers, Stevenson said she's heard anonymously from district employees that "the reason they were given was the talk was too controversial."
"That's certainly the impression people in the district seem to be under," Stevenson said. "And since this morning, I've heard from a number of parents in the district, including several from Longfellow Elementary, who were upset the talk was canceled and are very much in support of their kids getting an inclusive education and concerned about bigoted attitudes in the community."
Stevenson acknowledged in her open letter that Illinois public schools will soon be required to include the roles and contributions of LGBTQ people in U.S. history. "But schools should not need to be legislated to be inclusive," she wrote.
A flier was sent home with students offering them the opportunity to buy Stevenson's book as part of her visit, but it didn't include information about the content of her presentation, Loiacono said via email while Schuler was attending a conference Wednesday.
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," Loiacono said.
The parent's concern influenced the decision to cancel the event and alerted administrators the school did not follow practices surrounding author visits, Loiacono said.
Longfellow administrators attempted multiple times to contact the author's representatives to discuss the situation, according to the statement.
"We look forward to speaking with the author and discussing the possibility of scheduling a visit to our school community in the future," the statement reads. "In District 200, we care deeply for all students. On a daily basis, our staff ensures we are building and sustaining a culture that supports all students."
The author of more than 25 books, Stevenson said she's unaware of any effort to reschedule. After her U.S. book tour ended and she returned home, she talked to her publisher about speaking out about the district's decision.
Stevenson said the cancellation of her appearance sends a "very harmful message to students, particularly students who are themselves LGBTQ+ or have family members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. It says their lives can't be talked about, that their very existence is seen as shameful or dangerous."