On December 8, a police officer showed up at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and searched a teacher’s classroom for the novel Gender Queer. The search came after the Great Barrington Police Department received an anonymous complaint that the book allegedly contained obscene and pornographic material. After unsuccessfully searching the classroom, the officer left, and the state’s district attorney ordered the police department to close its investigation. But in the aftermath of the incident, the local community understandably has some questions.
Ruth A. Bourquin, senior and managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the Eagle that this is the first known case of police going to a school to search for a book. Police say that they were obligated to open the probe into the school upon receiving a complaint about Gender Queer—a coming-of-age graphic memoir for young readers about grappling with one’s gender and sexual orientation.
“Faced with an unprecedented police investigation of what should be a purely educational issue, we tried our best to serve the interests of students, families, teachers and staff,” the Berkshire Hills Regional School District wrote in a letter to students and family obtained by the Berkshire Eagle. “In hindsight, we would have approached that moment differently. We are sorry.” The book, the letter says, “was not the issue.” Rather, “the process challenging [the book] was.”
In a separate statement, Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said, “We want to clearly and unequivocally state that the school district does not support banning books.” Dillon further expressed that he “would have preferred that the complaint came to the school or district and not the police,” adding, “We have systems to respond to concerns about curriculum.” W.E.B. Du Bois Regional’s principal, Miles Wheat, clarified to Boston.com that Gender Queer is not part of any school curriculum, but is part of a teacher’s classroom library.
The police department says they notified school and district administrators of their probe and informed them that an officer would come to the middle school. They also said the school principal personally escorted the officer to the classroom. Once there, the officer turned on their body camera to record the subsequent interactions. “Because this complaint was made directly to the police department, we are obligated and have a duty to examine the complaint further,” Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti said in a statement published on Boston.com on Wednesday. Storti’s statement recounts that “after a brief conversation with the teacher, the officer was advised that the book in question was not there and could not be accounted for at that time.”
Bourquin told the Eagle that the ACLU of Massachusetts is “very troubled by this notion” that “anytime someone could call” with a complaint about a book like Gender Queer, “they have an obligation to go marching into places wearing a body cam, and… interrogating people.” The organization has since requested access to the officer’s body camera footage, and all other records pertaining to the investigation and the complaint. The middle school’s librarian has also spoken out, telling the Eagle that it’s “critically important for concerned community members to remember that the current situation is not about forcing a book into students’ hands,” but “about the freedom to read.”
The ACLU of Massachusetts did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Jezebel on any action it may pursue against the Great Barrington Police Department. Great Barrington Police Department also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the investigation, or the circumstances in which the department will take action regarding school curriculum.
On Monday, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) issued a statement on the incident: “Our administration stands with educators who are committed to ensuring that their students have inclusive, comprehensive resources,” Healey said. “I’m proud to see these students stepping up to support their teacher, their peers and an inclusive learning environment.”
The investigation comes as states, cities, and school boards—led by increasingly hysterical right-wing electeds—across the country are cracking down on what material is being taught in schools, including targeting “critical race theory” (that is, any books or content that acknowledge white supremacy in America) as well as content that includes themes of queer identity. Just last year Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law what’s known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law to prohibit classroom discussion of queer identity from kindergarten to third grade. In 2021 alone the state of Texas banned over 800 books from schools. All of this is incredibly concerning on its own—without also having to be concerned about the possibility of schools being subjected to police searches for books.