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Massachusetts police apologize after officer searched a middle school for LGBTQ book

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Police in western Massachusetts apologized Thursday after an officer was sent to a middle school to search for a copy of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, following a complaint.

On December 8, a plainclothes officer was escorted into a classroom at W.E.B. Dubois Regional Middle School toward the end of the school day to search for the book, Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti said in a statement sent to CNN.

“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,” the statement said.

“As the Chief of Police for the Great Barrington Police Department, I apologize to anyone who was negatively effected by our involvement at the W.E.B. Dubois Middle School on December 8, 2023,” Storti said.

Police said they had received a complaint that day from someone “who witnessed what they perceived to be concerning illustrations” in a book given to students by a teacher at the middle school.

The person, who authorities did not identify, shared a photo of an illustration that depicted animated characters performing sexual acts on each other, police said.

School officials and police later determined the illustration was part of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” Storti told CNN. The graphic memoir examines the non-binary author’s journey with identity, and it has been one of the most banned or challenged books from school libraries in recent years.

In a previous interview with CNN, Kobabe encouraged people who describe the memoir as inappropriate or pornography to read the whole book.

“Read the whole thing and judge for yourself, don’t just go based on the one or two tiny clips you’ve seen on social media,” Kobabe told CNN.

Storti told CNN his department had never responded to similar complaints before. In a press release, he said that “because this complaint was made directly to the police department, we are obligated and have a duty to examine the complaint further.”

“Over the years, our relationship with our schools has been positive and collaborative, so together we worked with the school to try to navigate this sensitive situation. If our involvement caused distrust and alarm, that was not our intention. I promise you our actions were not meant to disenfranchise anyone or influence school curriculum,” Storti said.

The police department and the Berkshire County District Attorney Timothy Shugrue determined the matter should be referred to the school district, Storti said.

In a message sent to the school community Tuesday, Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon and Stephen Bannon, chair of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, apologized for how the incident was handled by school officials.

“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. In hindsight, we would have approached that moment differently. We are sorry. We can do better to refine and support our existing policies. We are committed to supporting all our students, particularly vulnerable populations,” Dillon and Bannon wrote.

The district plans to hold several meetings to discuss the incident, including at a previously scheduled school committee meeting in January, Dillon and Bannon said.

Ruth Bourquin, senior managing attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, condemned the actions of police saying, “This incident is deeply concerning, and a serious escalation of attempts by a vocal minority to ban books that are by and about LGBTQ people, communities of color, and other marginalized groups.”

Correction: A previous version of this story used an incorrect pronoun for Maia Kobabe. It has been fixed.

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