Emails reveal Dist. 200 board member was 'very upset' over author's canceled appearance
At first, Susan Booton thought she had ordered the wrong book.
Surely, this wasn't the one that led Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 to quash an author's visit to an elementary school, right?
The district had disinvited Robin Stevenson after officials objected to some of the LGBTQ stories -- profiles of trailblazing gay and transgender rights activists -- in her new children's book.
But after reading it, Booton, a school board member, pushed back against their concerns and called for rescheduling Stevenson's appearance, according to internal emails obtained by the Daily Herald through a public records request.
Initially, district officials blamed their decision on a "lack of appropriate notification of the author's visit." But students at Longfellow Elementary did receive an order form made by Anderson's Bookshops employees who had scheduled Stevenson's appearance.
"It just kills me that in this day and age, we have to give notice for someone being gay," Booton wrote to Superintendent Jeff Schuler and school board President Brad Paulsen in a Nov. 5 email.
"There was a time in the not-so-distant past that the same was true for being black or a Jew. Can't our district be part of moving this conversation forward?"
In response to the Daily Herald's Freedom of Information Act request, the district released dozens of emails from parents who shared Booton's views -- and others who defended administrators' decision to rescind the invite the night before Stevenson's scheduled Oct. 2 talk.
Now, more than two months later, school board members plan to re-examine policies governing content presented to students.
Stevenson was supposed to talk with 175 third- through fifth-graders at Longfellow about her book, "Kid Activists: True Tales of Childhood from Champions of Change."
The cancellation wasn't widely known until Stevenson wrote an open letter raising concerns about inclusivity in the district as educators prepare to implement a new state law requiring schools to highlight the roles and contributions of LGBTQ people in American history and culture.
Booton declined to comment, saying she didn't want to speak on behalf of the board.
But in her email to Schuler and Paulsen, Booton said she was "saddened and, quite frankly, very upset regarding this decision. I would very much like to revisit the policy that is in place that you feel was violated (I still am not clear on which policy that is)."
Booton had asked Schuler about the author and the book's title. Schuler called Booton and couldn't remember the title but "thought it was about child activists," Booton recounted.
"You also explained that there were several characters that were either gay and/or transgender in the book that you, Brad, and (Assistant Superintendent Chris Silagi) felt were inappropriate for the grade level," Booton wrote. "You also very clearly explained that the main issue was that parents were not given notice about the inclusion of those characters and therefore given the option to opt out of the visit."
Booton ordered a copy of "Kid Activists" because "it seemed like" the book Schuler had described.
"Once I received it, I thumbed through it and absolutely thought this had to be the wrong book because it was about real people, and the only gay person in the book was Harvey Milk, who was a very important person in the gay rights movement," Booton wrote.
Milk's story is told "at an age-appropriate level," Booton wrote. The book does not talk about sexual situations, nor does it promote being gay or transgender, Booton told Schuler.
Stevenson wrote about Milk's childhood before he became one of the country's first openly gay politicians elected to office. The chapter "talks about him hiding being gay through much of his life, and also discusses being Jewish and how the Holocaust impacted both Jews and gay people," Booton said in the email.
"Jeff, you said to me that if a book only had a mention of a gay character, this wouldn't have been an issue," she wrote. "This book is 211 pages of active text, contains stories about 16 different people, and 12 pages are devoted to Harvey Milk. That's less than 6% of the book."
Schuler has said that stories about gender identity "caused concern." He pointed to a chapter about Janet Mock, 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.
Stevenson said she told officials she did not plan to discuss Milk or Mock and instead was going to focus on other historical figures featured in the book, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
Stevenson met last month with Schuler the day after speaking in Glen Ellyn about "Kid Activists," the cancellation and LGBTQ inclusivity in schools. She said Schuler told her he was going to reach out to gay-straight alliances in the district's high schools and offer to hear student concerns.
Stevenson also reiterated calls for Schuler and the school board to make a public statement in support of LGBTQ people. That matters more to her than the issue of whether the district invites her to speak.
"I think there's been a lot of, over the last few weeks, really harmful things said in the community and online attacking LGBTQ people," she said. "And I would like to see the district make a clear statement that they oppose bigotry, that they oppose all forms of discrimination and that they stand behind their LGBTQ students and families and staff members and that those people have their full support."
Paulsen, meanwhile, said he isn't recommending a specific policy change, but wants the board to determine if any revisions or clarifications are needed.
Would the district reinvite Stevenson?
"If there's a right fit and time and audience for that and a mutual interest in doing so," Paulsen said, "I'm sure that we could explore that possibility, but no decisions have been made yet to my knowledge."
But he said the board is "completely supportive" of Schuler and the administration's decision "based on all the information at the time and the circumstances surrounding that decision."
Paulsen said he hasn't read Stevenson's book.