Moms for Liberty ramps up fight to ban more books in Johnson County school district

Some Johnson County residents recently received a mass text message urging them to help Gardner parents “remove pornographic and sexual content from our schools!”

The text included a link to a petition, with more than 600 signatures, created by parent Carrie Schmidt, who has been challenging several books in the Gardner Edgerton school district. Both the text campaign and petition come as Moms for Liberty, a national conservative activist group, ramps up efforts in Johnson County to gain broader support for removing school library books they deem inappropriate.

Chapter leaders for Moms for Liberty, which helps train parents on filing book challenges, said they were not behind the text campaign.

“School libraries should have a rich and varied collection of literature devoid of content such as explicit sexual acts, nudity, rape, child abuse, incest, molestation, prostitution, pedophilia, and self-harm,” Johnson County chapter leaders said in a statement to The Star. “We firmly oppose placing books containing sexually explicit, gratuitously violent or depraved content, which is often in direct violation of district policy, on public school library shelves.”

The Star had reported that Schmidt was a lone parent challenging books in Gardner Edgerton, leading administrators to remove seven. Afterward, local Moms for Liberty leader Erika Sheets posted on the group’s Johnson County Facebook page saying, “Just the beginning.”

She encouraged members to direct-message her if they “would like to discuss challenging books in your school,” according to screenshots shared with The Star.

School board member Jeff Miller posted in a private Gardner citizens Facebook page that they should “step up and take away the narrative from the liberal group making the book issue about just one parent. As a board member we get plenty of emails telling (us) not to let one parent ‘ban books’ and have gotten metro wide attn. for our policy.”

Miller, who did not return The Star’s request for comment, wrote: “If many parents would take a stand and speak up this would take away their fuel. That’s all they have is to attack one parent. Quit playing defense and start an offensive attack.”

The feuding sides showed up in force at last week’s school board meeting, where local Moms for Liberty leaders, parents, students and community members spoke up for their causes.

Librarians and free speech advocates argue that a small number of parents should not infringe on the students’ rights, and that removing books vetted by professionals amounts to the censorship of diverse viewpoints. Gardner Edgerton High School’s longtime librarian recently resigned as the books were being removed.

“Stop being complacent to the whims of one parent and instead stand up for access to reading materials,” high school senior Elizabeth Fiedler told school officials. “Even if they are different than what you believe, the job of educators is to give us access to materials so we are able to form opinions for ourselves and not to limit the material so we only see your point of view.”

Afterward, the school board approved a committee’s recommendation to retain one of the challenged books, “Bait” by Alex Sanchez. The book, marketed for children ages 12 and up and available in middle school libraries, tells the story of a troubled teenager who ends up in juvenile court.

Schmidt had challenged the book, saying it had depictions of violence and abuse that are inappropriate for students. In her complaint, obtained by The Star through a records request, she argued the book is, “teaching our children how to harm themselves.”

The district committee unanimously agreed it was appropriate, saying portions of the book describing self harm “weren’t overly descriptive, nor were they glamorized.” It said such behavior is discouraged throughout the story. And the book is “relatable to teens, especially those that may come from diverse backgrounds with similar life experiences.”

After the committee’s recommendation, the school board unanimously approved keeping the book on library shelves, as part of its routine consent agenda.

The committee will make a recommendation to the school board as early as June on two other books still under review.

A Gardner Edgerton mom has challenged several library books, leading the district to pull seven of them. Two more are under review.
A Gardner Edgerton mom has challenged several library books, leading the district to pull seven of them. Two more are under review.

Books facing challenges

Gardner resident Keith Davenport said his wife, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter, received the text late last month asking for support for removing books.

Davenport, a Democrat, last year lost his bid challenging Republican Kansas state Rep. Bill Sutton — husband of Gardner Edgerton school board member Lana Sutton. Davenport said he did not receive the text. He tweeted a screenshot of it, raising questions about where it originated and how the list of recipients was compiled.

On a Moms for Liberty Facebook post, a member asked about the mass text. Sheets wrote in response, “A local, private citizen funded the text campaign.”

Chapter leaders told The Star that the group, “did not pay for the Gardner petition text campaign. We are a 501c4 non-profit, non-partisan and we are not a PAC.”

Moms for Liberty is spearheading book challenges across the country, with ties to other national groups with conservative donors.

“There are thousands of parents and community members in Johnson County, in the state of Kansas and across the U.S. who support those efforts. We applaud Carrie Schmidt for her efforts to protect children in school by challenging inappropriate books,” Johnson County chapter leaders said.

The local chapter has regularly appeared at Gardner Edgerton school board meetings, including last week.

“Any time a child is in a sexualized environment, it’s not entertainment, it’s grooming,” Sheets said. “… It defies common sense that district librarians, administrators and even some board members are literally fighting to keep our children exposed to more sexualized environment that has data demonstrating its danger.”

Gardner Edgerton students, parents and guardians can submit challenges to library materials, which are reviewed by administrators, according to district policy. If the issue is not resolved by administration, a review committee considers whether to retain the material. Then the school board votes on the committee’s recommendation.

The majority-conservative school board in October voted 5-1 to retain the first book Schmidt challenged: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which is part of the required reading list for 10th graders. The book, a common reading requirement, is based on author Sherman Alexie’s own experiences and tells the story of a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The protagonist moves to attend an all-white high school in a farm town.

Schmidt found issue with characters using slurs and profanity, and with sexual references, such as masturbation. The book has been one of the top most-challenged books over the past decade, according to the American Library Association.

But the committee — made up of two school board members, administrators, a library media specialist, two members of the language arts department, a parent and a student — determined the book was appropriate. And the school board affirmed the decision to retain it.

District administrators have removed seven high school library books in response to Schmidt’s challenges.

Three are in a series by author Mila Gray: “Come Back to Me,” “Stay With Me” and “Run Away With Me.” The novels, which deal with romance, love and loss, were marketed as appropriate for ages 16 to 18 by the publisher.

Another book removed from the library was “It Ends With Us” by Colleen Hoover, a romance novel about a young woman breaking the cycle of domestic abuse. And the other three banned titles are in the bestselling fantasy series by Sarah J. Maas: “A Court of Mist and Fury,” “A Court of Silver Flames” and “Empire of Storms.”

The district committee was asked to review three other books. Now that “Bait” has been retained, the committee will consider whether the district should keep “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson, a story of a girl suffering from mental illness and an eating disorder, as well as “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, about five troubled teenagers who fall into prostitution.

‘Controversial topics’

Superintendent Brian Huff said at last week’s board meeting that it is crucial to gain feedback to help school leaders determine what is considered appropriate by the majority of the community. And books are reviewed based on content, maturity levels and their “enduring qualities.”

“This is not a simple process. It’s not black and white,” Huff said.

He said a typical high school removes and replaces about 100 books each year through a routine process to update collections.

“And we trust our librarians to make good decisions with that. We have about 4,000 books in our collection, novels at the high school,” Huff said. There is still ample opportunity for students to read from all genres. We have removed seven books. We’ve retained 4,000.”

Huff said he supports students’ First Amendment rights, and is working with language arts teachers and school librarians to review books.

“I will defend our librarians. They are good, professional, hardworking individuals that care about our kids. They want the very best for our kids,” he said.

Huff also said he is a “huge proponent of having controversial topics within our books. … Books that cause kids to think, think differently than what they have typically thought throughout their childhood and cause them to address other points of view. We need to teach our kids to argue, because quite honestly, our adults are terrible at it.”

The review process in Gardner Edgerton comes as GOP lawmakers, political action committees and conservative parent groups in the Kansas City metro and across the country work to remove school library books, mostly featuring racially diverse or LGBTQ characters.

In Lee’s Summit, six parents have challenged roughly 90 books, ranging from Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” about an 11-year-old Black girl who yearns to fit white American beauty standards to “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a coming-of-age essay collection by George M. Johnson with LGBTQ themes.

Missouri House Republicans last month cut the entire $4.5 million in state aid that public libraries were slated to get next year in retaliation for a lawsuit on behalf of two library groups challenging a new state law. Missouri librarians are suing over the law that bans sexually explicit material from schools, leading to districts removing hundreds of books — including classic novels, human anatomy texts and Holocaust history books. But the spending plan must still be approved by the Senate, which plans to restore the library funding and keep it in the budget.