By RACHEL MIPRO
The Gardner Edgerton School District has made news recently with a transgender student policy that the Kansas American Civil Liberties Union condemned as potentially unlawful. With the policy still under discussion and a vote delayed, it seemed as though things were finally settling down for the district.
But the newest issue to come up is censorship. Parents are demanding that a book be banned from the school curriculum. Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has been on the classroom curriculum for years as an upper-level English class reading assignment.
Two parents have taken the lead in trying to take the book out of school circulation. Bud Campbell, father of four children in the district, said he found out about the book in August from a Facebook group. Though he hasn’t read the full novel, he didn’t approve of the excerpts he had read. Campbell hopes to get it banned from the curriculum and library.
While his 16-year-old has not been assigned the book, and he has not talked with the teenager about the novel, Campbell said he was concerned about other students in the high school reading questionable material.
Campbell started by emailing the principal of the school about “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and the “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which he had heard was available for student reading. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was taken out of the school, though it was a donation accepted by a teacher and not part of the library or assigned reading, Campbell said.
He and fellow parent Carrie Schmidt filled out forms requesting an evaluation of the book, meeting with Gardner Edgerton School District Superintendent Brian Huff. Campbell said he wanted to be the one teaching his children about topics like sexuality and race.
“I think I’m one of those people that think schools are trying to take too much from the parents. Things that we’re not really asking them to teach our kids,” Campbell said.
Kristen Schultz, a former school board member, said she was extremely tired of all of the rancor. Schultz has lived in the area since 1995 and served on the school board for nearly eight years, with all three of her kids graduating from the district.
She said parental outrage started with the Johnson County mask mandates and snowballed from there. Schultz believes just a few ultra-conservative parents have dominated the entire school discussion.
“It began there,” Schultz said. “And since then, in just the nine short months since the new school board has taken over, we’ve had complaints about the transgender issue, which is a very heated topic right now. And then just falling into this book banning thing. So it’s almost like they’re following the ultra-conservative recipe. First we have masks. Now we have trans kids and LGBTQ kids and now book banning.”
Schultz said her children had read the book with no problems, and that excerpts read by parents for shock value were taken out of context, with explicit material occurring in less than a dozen pages.
Schultz believes there are plenty of options for disgruntled parents. An opt-out option is given for assigned books in the district, and parents can choose to have their child read something else if they object to the material on any grounds.
She worries that important issues, such as bolstering the district’s special education program or helping overworked teachers, are getting ignored in favor of political talking points.
“Our district is trying. I take nothing away from our district, our district administration, they’re trying to focus on these things, but every time someone throws a wrench like a book banning into the works, it removes the focus from where it should be and wastes both time and resources,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s daughter, Taylor Farwell, taught at Gardner Edgerton High School for seven years. She said she had never experienced difficulty with the book as either a student or a teacher, with her students responding positively to “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
“It was one of the few books that I think all of our students were really engaged with,” Farwell said.
Farwell believes the novel is age appropriate, and that students are able to handle topics including masturbation and racism.
“We’re expecting these young adults to carry responsibilities like getting behind the wheel of a car,” Farwell said. “But yet they’re not mature responsible enough to read a book that talks about sex? That has you know, words about sex. That’s just silly to me.”
When Schmidt was asked about her children’s thoughts on the novel and whether they would opt out, she said she wanted to keep them out of the discussion.
“It’s not about them necessarily individually,” Schmidt said. “It’s about our children, everyone in the district, all the kids in the district.”
She, like Campbell, feels the opt-out option isn’t enough.
“Kids should not be reading this information or these words,” Schmidt said. “It’s horrible, in my opinion. There is so much sex that is being pushed down our kids’ throat outside of the school. Why are we bringing it inside of the school?”
A committee decision on the book will be made in October, before the Oct. 10 Board of Education meeting. The committee, which includes the high school principal, students, teachers, parents and district officials, will have the ultimate decision on whether the book is kept or removed, according to district spokesman Ben Boothe.
The evaluation comes in the wake of other Kansas school book removals. Goddard Public Schools and Derby Public Schools both banned “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in 2021. Goddard removed more than two dozen books from the district’s school libraries in November 2021 before reversing the decision, and students in the North Kansas City School District to campaigned to get novels dealing with sexuality and gender put back on the shelves.
Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education since 2014, said challenges to school books available to students were appropriately handled by the elected local school board, in a statement to the Kansas Reflector.
“I think local school districts have policies on that,” said Watson, who has visited all 286 of the state’s public school districts. “I think they handle it well.”