Update: KPS now says it will include books with LGBTQ, disability and socioeconomic themes in the Diverse Classroom Libraries initiative.
This story has been updated to include further statements by the school district.
Kalamazoo Public Schools is running into controversy as the district seeks to diversify books in elementary classrooms. On Tuesday KPS confirmed that effort won’t include books with LGBTQ themes.
In a statement, the district said that’s because some parents complained about a story that featured a transgender child.
“The district received complaints from three parents,” according to the statement. “The district made the decision to focus the diverse classroom book selection process on just issues of racial and ethnic diversity, and to avoid other diversity issues such as disability, socio-economics, and sexuality at this time.”
In a follow-up statement, KPS officials said, "The Diverse Classroom Libraries" project had a narrow focus to increase the racial and ethnic diversity represented in books in the classroom." It goes on to say that the book about a transgender character read by a teacher to a third-grade class, "...was not included in the classroom libraries because it did not meet the basic criteria for that project - it was not written by nor was it about a person of color."
The program’s emphasis on racial diversity has been clear from the beginning. KPS says that about 6 in 10 students in the district come from a racial or ethnic minority background.
The district adds that research from the University of Wisconsin shows that “only 23 percent of children’s books have characters from racially diverse backgrounds.”
But Northglade Elementary parent Sarah Davis says that leaving LGBTQ-centered books out of the Diverse Classroom Libraries project shortchanges hundreds of KPS students. She criticized the district’s decision at a school board meeting earlier this month.
“Our kids feel invisible and erased, and in order to keep them safe, and making them feel loved and included, these books need to be part of these classroom libraries. I’m not personally asking teachers to teach them, but to have them on the shelf,” she told WMUK.
Davis says a number of books address gender identity and same-gender attraction in a grade-school-appropriate way.
Alex Gino’s novel “George” is about a child who’s born male but “knows she’s a girl,” according to the blurb, and wants to play Charlotte in the school play, “Charlotte’s Web.”
“That’s all George is asking for,” Davis said. She said that “George” is the title that drew the complaints at KPS, though the district has not said which book was involved.
“Julián is a Mermaid” is a picture book by Jessica Love about a little boy who dresses up as a mermaid.
Davis, who said she used to teach English, said parents who don’t approve of these books have options.
“In the cases where parents are upset about the content, they can talk to the teacher, they can ask their students to have a separate book. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole-class project,” she said.
“It just needs to be available for our LGBT students and the rest of the students who are going to learn to accept them and affirm them through books like ‘George.’”
Davis says she plans to attend the KPS Board meeting Thursday, when trustees will get an update on the Diverse Classroom Libraries program. KPS officials say they have met with OutFront Kalamazoo, an LGBTQ advocacy group, to discuss ways it might help the district get training and resources to serve its students. They say the next phase of the project will involve middle schools and will deal with other aspects of diversity in books, including LGBTQ issues, "on an age appropriate basis."