The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against a school district that banned a book with a nonbinary character from elementary schools after a single parent complained.
The Independence School District (ISD) in Independence, Missouri, a city of 120,000 about 10 miles away from Kansas City, banned “Cats vs. Robots #1: This is War” by Lewis Peterson and Margaret Stohl, which has three pages describing a nonbinary character. The board has repeatedly said there is no way to appeal or reverse the ban.
The lawsuit alleges that the district’s policy of removing books without notice or opportunity to appeal violates students’ rights to free speech and due process. It is asking the district to revoke this policy.
“Equity in our education system is further eroded when the government sets policies that require challenged books to automatically be pulled from shelves without notice or an opportunity to appeal the final decision, denying students their First Amendment and Due Process rights,” Gillian Wilcox, the deputy director for litigation at the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement.
Many parents in the district feel the school board has long had transparency issues and disagreed with the decision to ban “Cats vs. Robots.”
“Removing a book because it has a non-binary character is ridiculous,” Wendy Baird, a parent in the district who also runs a Facebook page that provides a space for the community to discuss the school board, told HuffPost. “[The board] has heard from a lot of the community that’s saying this isn’t right, and it isn’t reflective of our community.”
In the book, which is 307 pages and intended for kids ages 8 to 12, alien cats and alien robots are at war but soon begin to realize they may need to work together. A character uses they/them pronouns, and the book takes a few pages to explain what that means in age-appropriate language.
A parent first complained about “Cats vs. Robots” in April, the Kansas City Star reported. The book was automatically removed, pending review and a final vote from the school board.
ISD’s school board doesn’t livestream meetings or publicize the agenda or minutes. Baird, who started attending board meetings after her child had issues with virtual learning, said it was pure luck that she ended up at the meeting where voting on the book ban was on the agenda.
But she still had to use a public records request to figure out why “Cats vs. Robots” was being banned in the first place.
In June, the separate review committee voted to remove the book, and the wider school board voted 6 to 1 to ban it.
After the book was officially banned, the district emailed parents and staff, notifying them of the removal. “There are topics in the Cats vs. Robots book, including reference to non-binary sexual orientation, which are not evident from the title or cover information which may be new to young readers,” the email read. (Being nonbinary is not a sexual orientation.)
“It really upset me that an institution that was a big part of my life growing up would ban a book because of that,” said Brent Clark, who also has two children in the district.
Baird said the reading should teach students about a variety of people. “It’s important for my kids to see those kinds of characters,” she said. “And it’s important for kids who may see themselves in those characters.”
The school board has responded to criticism by pointing out that the book is still available at the district’s middle and high schools — even though it’s meant for a younger set. “I would be shocked if anyone at the high school level had any interest in it,” Clark said.
School boards have become political battlegrounds over the last year, with conservatives particularly targeting books with themes of racial justice and LGBTQ characters. More than 2,500 titles were banned across the country between July 2021 and March 2022, according to PEN America. These culture wars have become yet another burden for educators and school staff, even as shortages intensify in school districts around the U.S.
Parents and students at Independence schools say they’re disappointed to see these culture wars play out in their town.
“I know people who went to this school district who are in the LGBTQ community,” Clark said, “and I am just stunned that the school board would say you’re not important enough to be seen.”