High School Students Fight Back in Wentzville, Missouri

Banned and Challenged Books, Civil Liberties, School Libraries

I started investigating this school censorship report from Missouri in late January and some amazing events have taken place since then. The onslaught of bleak doom and gloom censorship cases has certainly been piling up but I promise you, this one will make you smile by the end. To quote Art Spiegelman from his censorship conversation earlier this month, “All these old bullies who are pushing you around, they’re gonna die and you’re going to be here and you’re going to have to figure it out.” The teenagers are figuring it out, indeed. I think the future is bright. Read on for the details.

Wentzville School District logo

In September 2021, a resident of Wentzville, Missouri who has no children enrolled in public school brought eight book challenges to the Wentzville School District. This resident has made the choice to enroll their own children in private school and simultaneously felt the need to parent other people’s children enrolled in all of the district’s 18 public schools. Wentzville is Missouri’s third most populated city and is the northwest suburb of St. Louis. It is about 30 miles from the Illinois border naturally made by the Mississippi River.

How do you think this story goes? It did not start with a request for reconsideration, no. It began with the resident calling one of the public high school’s resource officers to report that the school librarian was in possession of child pornography. Any good police officer doing their due diligence would investigate such a heinous accusation. And so the school librarian was investigated for possession of child porngraphy. The “pornography” that the resident was referring to was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. No one in the past half century has legally defined the Pulitzer Prize & Nobel Medal winning author as a child pornographer, so the school librarian was not charged with anything. 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

As per school policy, review committees were formed by teachers, parents of students in the grade level(s) affected, and at least one school librarian. Committees were tasked with reading the entire book and assessing whether it has educational value and should stay on the shelf. The committee for The Bluest Eye decided to keep the book and you may read their entire report here. With that professional and parental advice, the school board decided to banish the book from all high school libraries and they did not stop there. They also decided to remove The Bluest Eye from the AP English Curriculum. I always thought the AP Curriculum was a standard set by the College Board, not to be picked apart by individuals. Unfortunately the College Board did not reply to my inquiry for their opinion. At the time I spoke with Wentzville school librarians, they were refusing to participate in the review committees any longer because the School Board would not listen to them before removing books. As per the policy, without a school librarian a committee cannot be formed so this stalls the book removal process a little bit.

The students are not ignorant of these challenges. One high school reporter covered the situation for the school newspaper, Liberty High School (LHS) Daily, which provided a unique student insight. In many cases, the voices of the actual affected students are ignored over the shouting contest between various grown-ups. Not in Wentzville. On February 16th, 2022 the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri helped two students file a class action lawsuit in federal court against their school for violating their civil rights through book banning. And almost like magic, that very same day, the school board all of a sudden voted 7-0 to return one of the books to the shelves. The book was Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. Two of the eight book challenges have been entirely withdrawn by the very person who challenged them. It is all fun and games until you get served with a lawsuit and reality sets in. And in a school board election year, no less!  

This begs the question of the rhetoric of “protecting the children.” Are they truly children if they can file a class action lawsuit in federal court when you violate their constitutional rights with your totalitarian ideals? Or are they young adults ready to fend for themselves with their own brains, thoughts, and opinions? I am immensely proud of these students, and allow me speak for librarianship as a whole because I think we can all agree on this. We are all in your corner and we thank you for your bravery and tenacity.

Exactly 79 Februarys ago, college students Sophie and Hans Scholl were murdered for writing and distributing essays speaking out against the Third Reich. Sophie was just 21 when she died and I often use her as a muse. The Scholls are just one example of how young people can change the world, but the words of the White Rose resonate differently with me this year:

I ask you…why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?

(White Rose Leaflet 3)

Heed this warning from history. Do not let anyone rob you of your rights or crush your spirit. Be inspired by your children and let them grow into themselves. Give them the freedom to read and learn.

What can you do about this situation? Folks local to Wentzville can vote in the local school board elections. Local elections really determine your children’s educational freedoms which is why they are so important. The election will be Tuesday, April 5th, 2022 and the last day to register to vote is Wednesday, March 9th, 2022. Missourians can register to vote or check your voter registration status here. The Wentzville Board of Education race is on page 27 of this St. Charles County sample ballot, provided by the Election Authority of St. Charles County, Missouri. The Board of Education will have two open seats in the election of April 5th, 2022, as per the school district’s website. Your vote could change your community!

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