Illustration by Todd Franson. Original photos: Redd F, via Unsplash; Fred Moon, via Unsplash
A plainclothes police officer entered a Massachusetts middle school with the intent of removing a book that was deemed “obscene” by an anonymous complainant.
According to Paul Storti, the police chief of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, an officer visited W.E.B. DuBois Regional Middle School on Dec. 8 in response to an allegation that a teacher had made the book Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe about her coming of age as a nonbinary person, available to students at the school.
The complaining individual — who is reportedly a member of the school community — provided police with two images. The first was the book’s cover, in which a person is seen staring into a pool of water, looking at a shirtless reflection that does not match their physical appearance.
The second was a scene from the book in which two illustrated characters are shown engaging in oral sex. The complainant argued that the book depicted sexual acts and was inappropriate for middle school-aged children.
Storti told GBH News that because the complaint was made directly to the police department, officers were obligated to respond.
He noted that the department’s response was carefully arranged to minimize any disruption to the school, with an officer in plain clothes speaking with school administrators and later questioning a teacher about the book.
“The interaction with the teacher was cordial,” Storti said. “The officer didn’t touch anything. They didn’t search. They basically asked if the book was still there, to give the context of what we were dealing with. The teacher said the book wasn’t there, and the officer left.”
The location of the copy of Gender Queer that the officer was searching for is currently unknown.
Following the visit, the Great Barrington Police Department and Berkshire County District Attorney Timothy Shugrue determined that no criminality was involved. They referred the matter back to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
Julia Sabourin, a spokesperson for Shugrue, defended sending police to the school after the initial complaint.
“Police are duty bound to investigate reported criminal acts, and they can’t choose when to respond and when not to,” Sabourn said. “Gender Queer is the most banned book this year … but just researching [that context] doesn’t complete what officers are bound to do.”
Free speech advocates have expressed alarm at the prospect of police intervening at or even raiding schools with the intent of censoring books. Local advocates told the local newspaper The Berkshire Eagle that they cannot recall other instances of police entering schools to search for a book, and noted that such actions circumvent existing procedures that are in place regarding challenges to books for age-inappropriate material.
“That’s partly what is so concerning,” said Ruth Bourquin, managing attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Police going into schools and searching for books is the sort of thing you hear about in communist China and Russia. What are we doing?”
The ACLU of Massachusetts has filed two public records requests for materials connected to the complaint and its aftermath.
The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and Superintendent Peter Dillon have apologized to the broader school community, stating “clearly and unequivocally” that the district does not support book banning and is committed to making all students feel safe.
“The recent incident at the middle school has challenged and impacted our community,” their statement reads. “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.”
School Committee Chair Stephen Bannon told GBH News that the complaint and the police response will be discussed at a school board meeting in January.
Jennifer Varney, the past president of the Massachusetts School Library Association, also criticized the attempt to use police to censor or yank books from school library shelves.
“Disagreements about books are not a reason for law enforcement involvement,” Varney told GBH News in an email. “Concerns about a book in a school should be brought to the teacher, librarian, or principal.”