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Southwest Michigan book battle leaves school community divided

Books sit on the light grey shelves at the Waldo Library at Western Michigan University. Four of these books are written by Ellen Hopkins, Impulse is a bright red with black text, Smoke a dark black with orange text, Tricks a rustic brown with similarly colored text, and finally Rumble is green, blue and orange, with white scratchy text.
Michael Symonds
Four of Ellen Hopkins' books sit on the shelves in Waldo Library at Western Michigan University. At the Brandywine Middle/High School these books are held behind the checkout desk in the library.

On Sept. 25, trustees in a school district near Niles voted to restrict students’ access to books with sexual content. The Brandywine Community Schools’ new policy got the vote of every member of the board. Critics say it goes too far, with divisions remaining between the board, teachers and parents.

Thomas Payne is the president of the Brandywine Board of Education. Elected last year, he campaigned using language now familiar in school board races across the country.

“Absolutely against the sexualization and indoctrination of our children. Let them be innocent,” he said in a video on YouTube.

Payne and three other conservatives won a seat — and a majority — on the Brandywine school board.

They said they would consider restricting books with violent content, but mainly they focused on investigating what Payne called “pornographic” books in the library at the combined middle and high school.

By April, trustees had a list of books. Board meetings grew contentious as trustees considered their next move.

In August, Payne tried to shut down Brandywine resident Ryan Adams as he questioned book bans.

In video of the meeting, Adams appears to be following the board’s rules, but Payne gavels as he talks. Payne ushers over and then speaks with a sheriff’s deputy. Superintendent Travis Walker, who was seated nearby, said Payne wanted Adams thrown out. But the deputy declined and Adams continued.

In late September the board approved a policy for books it deems sexually explicit in the middle and high school library.

Trustees barred the addition of new explicit titles. Those already in the collection are now off-limits to sixth-graders.

Other unemancipated students under 18 can only read them with a parent’s permission.

Parents have the option of signing a blanket permission slip. A copy obtained by WMUK is 203 pages long.

It includes all the sexual content from 22 restricted titles. Brandywine parent Kate Glass was surprised by the lengthy form.

“It was a major eye roll,” Glass said. “203 pages, completely excessive. In my opinion, it is silly to send out these phrases, these sentences, these excerpts out of context."

The district compiled the excerpts in the permission slip from a website called BookLooks (the permission slip refers to it as LookBooks).

Glass said the excerpts go beyond sexual content, listing occurrences of drug and alcohol use. They even tally the swear words and slurs in each book.

Glass questioned the district’s use of BookLooks.

“I think that we’re getting into dangerous territory there. We’re not necessarily vetting these, obviously, vetting these material that we’re sending out to parents,” Glass said.

BookLooks also notes the presence of what it calls “alternative sexualities", an apparent reference to LGBTQ+ characters. Multiple excerpts in Brandywine’s permission slip simply state that a character is gay.

Ellen Hopkins is the author of over a dozen young adult books. She wrote more than half of the titles the Brandywine district restricted.

Hopkins recently traveled from her home in Missouri to speak with students after parents reached out to her.

At the October 16th meeting she told trustees book restrictions can be harmful to teens.

“There are kids who need books that their parents might not want them to read, and that’s the truth. There are kids who are afraid to come out to their parents," she said.

Niles pastor Jeffrey Whittaker told the board he disagreed.

“That is one of those subtle red lights that kind of hits and says, 'well, wait a second, so, you know what's better for my child?'” Whittaker said.

Brandywine middle and high school teacher Debbie Carew also attended the meeting.

On the phone later that week she said she was shocked how much the district has changed since last year’s election.

“I don’t understand how a political agenda belongs here. Because it's, it's tearing us apart, inside and throughout the community,” she said.

Earlier this year, Brandywine was awarded a $5,000 grant from the organization We Need Diverse Books to add to its libraries. That’s after Carew and another teacher applied for the funds.

Board President Thomas Payne suggested the teachers broke the rules by not asking the board’s permission.

Superintendent Travis Walker said he believes the teachers followed the rules, but Walker declined to say why he later disciplined them.

Carew said it was for comments she made about the board in emails to We Need Diverse Books.

Carew said after a blog post about those emails, she was vilified online and is no longer on speaking terms with two members of her family.

“I can't tell you how much today I've just thought about retiring," she said. "I think I probably had 10 good years in me, but I don't think I can. I'm exhausted all the time.”

With the grant from We Need Diverse Books in limbo, trustees are expected to discuss it at their next meeting in mid-November.

They are also set to consider how to define and potentially restrict books with violent content.

WMUK's Jessi Phillips contributed reporting to this story.

Michael Symonds reports for WMUK through the Report for America national service program.

Report for America national service program corps member Michael Symonds joined WMUK’s staff in 2023. He covers the “rural meets metro” beat, reporting stories that link seemingly disparate parts of Southwest Michigan.