While school librarians, teachers, and other adults may be well-versed from a professional standpoint to defend students’ intellectual freedom rights, we must include another perhaps more powerful voice: students.
The recent unsuccessful attempts at unlawful book censorship in North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District, New Jersey, revealed the power of student voices. In my next series of posts, I will share interviews with several alumni or current students attending this school district who were willing to use their own voices to defend their intellectual freedom rights.
Meet Jude Gepp (they/them), currently a sophomore at North Hunterdon High School, who identifies as genderfluid. Gepp is among those who spoke at the January 25, 2022, school board meeting for North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District. After hearing public comment, the board voted on a reconsideration committee’s recommendations surrounding five book challenges, all of which feature diverse content: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: a Memoir by Maia Kobabe, This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Ultimately, the board voted to keep all five titles available in school libraries.
1. During the board meeting, you featured a QR code on your background screen. Can you please share the link?
The goal of my website is to make an accessible platform for information. There’s only so much that can be said in three minutes at Board meetings, so I decided to make a place where I can expand on it. I also include places within the site for feedback, inviting people to fill out forms or email me. A lot of people are reluctant to speak up for themselves, so I want to be able to speak for them.
2. What inspired you to speak at the school board meeting on January 25?
When I was younger, I’d always wanted to be an activist. I had severe social anxiety, though, so a lot of things in me told me not to. But time and time again, I would see situations and not act, then be disappointed with the outcome. I guess I was waiting for someone else to speak for me, but eventually, I realized that no one is going to say exactly what I want them to because they’re more unique than that. I want to be the one who says what others are thinking, and I try to make everything I say come from the heart.
3. Did anyone help you prepare your remarks? What did you do in order to prepare?
There was some aid in preparation, but for the most part, I worked independently. The main people who helped me were Josiah Kemp, Mitchell DeCosta, and Alex Ford. They were all working on their own parts, and that encouraged me to keep working. Alex Ford, though, was the most important inspiration. He offered unwavering support, and he sat beside me at the first Board of Education meeting I spoke at. He’s one of my best friends, and I honestly don’t think I would be able to do this without him.
When I was writing my speech, I ended up writing three pages of drafts but only finalized the one I read at the first meeting. There were already enough people talking about laws, data, and general experiences they’ve had, but no one was focusing on the board members themselves. They’re the ones we’re meant to speak to, so I thought it would be a good idea to help them empathize with the situation. That’s where I got my metaphor about cake and pie.
For the second speech, I had some help from the school librarian, Martha Hickson, so I consider that speech a joint effort. I definitely prefer my pie and cake speech, though.
4. Have you engaged in any advocacy since the meeting?
As much as those parents wish I hadn’t, I’ve been working on a few projects since the meetings. First, I have a website dedicated to spreading information and opening people’s eyes. For my projects, I’m working on papers articulating the need for gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBTQ+ sexual education, and the impact those changes could have on LGBTQ+ youth in NHHS. I mentioned during the most recent board meeting on Feb. 22 that I would email the Board of Education explaining how the school’s wellbeing survey is ineffective, and there are not enough gender-neutral bathrooms. Read my letter here (I have not yet received a response).
5. Have you had any personal experiences with book censorship?
When I was in fourth grade, I came home with a book about the American gold rush. I have no idea why I was interested in it, but I was. It was a big book, though, and since I was so young, I couldn’t understand a lot of it. I went to my parents and asked for help, and they answered my questions and read the book with me. Even as a young child, it was made clear to me that if I wanted to read something enough, I could read it. The idea that there was a book I couldn’t read was so foreign to me for years. I have always been able to read what I wanted to, and I think everyone should have that freedom.
6. Why were you interested in the school district keeping these specific challenged books available in school libraries?
There isn’t a specific reason as to why these books, in particular, should stay in the library. It’s just that there isn’t a reason why they shouldn’t. It’s somewhat frustrating that students had to justify why LGBTQ+ books should be allowed in school libraries. By default, books about cisgender heterosexual people are allowed, and the exception is books that are not allowed. Instead, LGBTQ+ books are, by default, unavailable, and there’s a large amount of hassle and effort in accessing them.
According to GLSEN’s survey in 2015, “Less than half (42.4%) of students reported that they could find information about LGBT-related issues in their school library.” The fact that we have LGBTQ+ books in our school library makes us part of the 42.4%, but we’re still targeted for it. Narrow-minded people aren’t satisfied with the fact that they’ve made LGBTQ+ books a rarity- they want them taken out entirely.
I don’t think this was just about the books. This was about hate, about control, and it was a show of power that backfired.
7. What advice would you give other students who want to get involved with advocacy?
Most people think of getting involved as speaking up in front of crowds, being in the public eye, and taking large risks. However, it’s not. There are people who do those things, but behind the scenes, there are so many activists working hard. There are the people who quietly write essays or letters to the school board stating their own opinion. There are people who create anonymous surveys and move on from there. Even just being one of the signatures on a survey helps.
If you want to speak up, go for it. Prepare what you want to say, rehearse it, edit it, rehearse again, and keep moving forward. It takes time to research all these things, but it’s worth it. Every voice matters, even if you don’t think yours does. The universe has been working toward this moment for centuries. It’s up to you to use it.
8. Have you done anything in particular to support your school librarians?
I don’t think so. Ms. Hickson, the main target, is extremely good at standing up for herself, and she’s strong enough to help herself. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s extremely intelligent. Anyone who underestimates her may have a rude awakening.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media. She is the recipient of the 2021 Media Literacy Teacher Award from the National Association for Media Literacy Education, the 2022 SCASL School Librarian of the Year, and the 2022 recipient of the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award.