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Mentor school board to again take up book challenge as public debate continues

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Posted at 6:34 PM, May 08, 2023

MENTOR, Ohio — The often controversial issue of book bans and public school libraries will again go before the Mentor Board of Education this week as the school board is expected to vote on a formal challenge to the book "Colin Kaepernick: From Free Agent to Change Agent" by author Eric Braun, which had been included in the fifth-grade reading libraries, according to school board documents. The formal challenge to the book is the latest salvo in the ongoing debate over what belongs on school library shelves, which has dominated public comment periods at school board meetings and prompted concerned citizens to seek elected office.

According to the agenda for Tuesday’s Mentor school board meeting, a citizen filed with the superintendent an objection to Braun’s book. In accordance with its longstanding policy, the district’s library review committee examined the book before a majority of the committee members voted in favor of keeping it. The committee’s analysis and written report on the book culminated in Superintendent Craig Heath formally recommending that the district retain the book, subject to the approval of the school board on Tuesday night.

In conservative-leaning Lake County, the schism surrounding books available to students for recreational reading has been a hot-button issue for more than a year.

Lyndsie Wall and Lauren Marchaza, both of whom have children enrolled in Mentor Public Schools, have frequently taken the mic during public comment to argue in favor of keeping certain titles on school library shelves. Eventually, their words became action.

Both Wall and Marchaza have announced candidacies for the Mentor Board of Education.

“When those titles started popping up and I started to see that they were books that so many people have read, that’s when the alarms went off for me,” Marchaza said. “I think parents should absolutely have the right and responsibility to see what their kids are reading, but that doesn’t extend to all of the kids in the district.”

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Although she had been contemplating it for more than a year, Wall, who has two elementary-aged children in the district, announced her candidacy in March. Marchaza announced her campaign last week. Both of them cited the ongoing debate over book bans as one of the primary factors in deciding to run for school board.

“[Those in favor of banning certain books] are only thinking about certain kids’ rights, certain parents’ rights — not all. We need to make sure that we have this library full of diverse books for all students,” Wall said. “It’s a group of books that is being targeted. It is specific books that they don’t want available to our kids. There are some kids, some parents that may decide that those books are not appropriate for their child, but there are definitely some kids and some parents that believe those books would be beneficial.”

Lobbyists for Citizens, a registered 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, which by law does not have to disclose its donors, appears to be gearing up to present a new argument regarding what books should belong on school library shelves.

The author of the letter, executive director Brian Massie, outlined his argument to city prosecutors Lisa Klammer (Mentor) and Joseph Gurley (Mentor-on-the-Lake), in which he contends that the Mentor school district “may have books containing pornographic materials available to children.”

Massie said that the letter, which had been obtained by News 5, had not been delivered to prosecutors and, instead, was only a draft. Massie said the contents of the letter are, in fact, his beliefs but they had not yet been acted on.

According to the letter, Massie argues that under the state’s pandering obscene materials involving a minor statute, it is illegal for teachers and other educators to distribute books containing such material. Massie also urged the prosecutors to “remind the school district of the consequences of violating” the statute.

However, the state’s pandering statute does not apply to “any material or performance that is sold, disseminated, displayed, possessed, controlled, brought or caused to be brought into this state, or presented for a (bolded for emphasis) bona fide medical, scientific, educational, religious, governmental or other proper purpose…”

Mentor Law Director Joseph Szeman said in an email: “The Mentor School District is a political subdivision distinct from the City of Mentor municipal government. I therefore do not as Mentor Law Director have any authority to provide it legal advice or counsel.”

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“If parents are concerned about what their kids are reading or learning about in school, you collaborate with the school,” Marchaza said. “You work with the school. You don’t go outside of the school to go to a prosecutor’s office to try to resolve the issue. It’s important to note that teachers aren’t requiring students to read any of these books that are on this so-called list. They are there, they are available for students to avail themselves of if they choose. That’s important to have those options available.”

According to a district policy that was enacted in 2006, parents may submit a formal challenge to certain books and seek to have them removed from school libraries. The policy states that if a citizen formally objects to a book or other media, the superintendent may decide to have it reviewed by a committee of school educators that will review and examine the book in question. The committee will then present its findings to the superintendent, who is then instructed to recommend whether the book should be kept or removed from library shelves. The superintendent’s recommendation is then voted on by the members of the school board.

With no indications that the simmering debate over book bans will cease any time soon, Wall said she is deeply concerned about the message it is sending to the district’s students.

I believe it teaches creative individuals to walk on eggshells,” Wall said. “When students hear that certain books are being kept from them and banned from libraries, it sends the notion that there are certain topics that they shouldn’t write about. There are certain experiences that they should keep quiet and that maybe a real-life event is something they shouldn’t share with other people. That sends the wrong message.”

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Marchaza said the push to ban and remove certain books has also created a maelstrom of sorts, dragging the district, school board, city officials, parents, and local and national organizations into the fold. Instead, the school board and parents should be focused on the serious challenges students are facing.

“It truly is a distraction from real and serious issues in our schools: busing challenges; teacher shortages; the kids that are still behind because of COVID,” Marchaza said. “Those are serious issues that we must address.”

Although neither Wall nor Marchaza could have ever anticipated that they would be seeking public office, both women said they are prepared for all that comes with it, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.

“My heart is here. It’s not even just the school district; it’s the entire community. I don’t think people realize how much the school district affects our community,” Wall said. “I came back to Mentor to put my kids into the school district that I graduated from because I trust Mentor public schools.”

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect comment from Brian Massie, the executive director of Lobbyists for Citizens.