As Moms For Liberty leaders pored over binders filled with hundreds of book titles searching for “pornographic material” in Colorado Springs School District 11 libraries, Courtney Hertner, a D11 parent, says she got a “glimpse” of the distrust that conservative parents and their advocates direct at teachers, librarians and the public school system in general.
The mothers gathered at Ruth Holly Library in early November for a biweekly meeting of the D11 Achievement Alliance, a group formed in June that’s focused on “academic achievement and parental rights,” as spokesperson Joel Sorensen puts it. “Parental rights” is a term coined by conservatives to mean parents’ assertion of control over what’s taught in public education, often overriding the decisions and expertise of school staff. Moms For Liberty backs the priorities of the D11 Board of Education’s conservative members, who became the majority of the board in 2021 elections on a wave of “dark money” channeled through the nonprofit Colorado Springs Forward.
About five non-Alliance members came to the meeting to learn exactly what the group discovered in school libraries. It had sent a mass email, claiming, “You have a right to know what pornographic material is available to your children, your grandchildren, and your neighborhood children.”
Hertner, a member of Neighbors For Education (NFE), the pro-public education and equity organization based in D11 and School District 49, attended for the same reason — she wanted to check out the discussions ideologically opposite of NFE. But she left feeling the “scary and sad” reality that a segment of the community is highly suspicious of school staff.
“I truly believe it’s not about the books — the books are a symptom,” she tells the Indy. “I really think that it comes down to, they clearly do not trust the school system.
“It really felt a lot like, ‘We just don’t trust the teachers to do what’s best for our kids,’” she adds. “[As if] the teachers are going to go into the library, pull these books out of the library, shove them at our kids and be like, ‘Don’t tell your parents.’”
For Hertner, the meeting was also a look at what might be on the horizon in D11: formal “book challenges” that aim to remove certain titles from school libraries. Her concern is that LGBTQ-inclusive perspectives are often targeted for removal. Books with anti-racism themes and Black history have also recently been challenged in Academy School District 20.
Sorensen, a UCCS sophomore who was a student in D11 and D20, claims the Alliance is focused solely on “sexually explicit content” — including graphic depictions of intercourse, rape or masturbation. He says the group is “unequivocally” not trying to target LGBTQ materials simply for their LGBTQ content, and tried to differentiate the Alliance’s efforts from those of Moms For Liberty – El Paso County.
That chapter, says its Co-chair Darcy Schoening, is organizing against materials that they claim are “focused on LGBTQ indoctrination.” (Anti-LGBTQ groups and politicians view “LGBTQ indoctrination” as the introduction and discussion of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender sexual orientations and identities in schools, including content that is inclusive of LGBTQ history.) Schoening is based in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 and the two leaders who were at the Alliance meeting are D11 parents. (They both declined an interview with the Indy.)
The binders, which were shared across both groups, are filled with “book reports” from BookLooks.org, a Florida-based “concerned parents” organization that reviews titles for “objectionable content,” according to its website. The reports include a “summary of concerns” and excerpts from the books.
Sorensen claims the binders include titles that were verified to be in D11 libraries by an Alliance member. (That member refused to be identified or talk with the Indy.) The titles available in each school library are searchable online through Destiny Follett, a digital library tool used by D11.
One example the group pulled is Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and illustrated by Jules Scheele, which is available at Palmer High School and has cartoons of women in bondage and dominatrix-style outfits and people having sex (breasts, but no genitalia, are depicted). The book is described by the library’s online catalog as an exploration of “how we came to view sex, gender and sexuality in the ways that we do; how these ideas get tangled up with our culture and our understanding of biology, psychology and sexology; and how these views have been disputed and challenged.”
Hertner says that another title was flagged for having “alternative sexual orientations” — that is, LGBTQ content.
She spotted in the Alliance’s binders Drama by Raina Telgemeier, a book about a fictional play that discusses bisexuality and being gay. That book is being targeted for containing “alternate sexualities and sexual activities,” BookLooks.org says.
“I get the concerns about ‘porn’ and ‘obscenity’ — to me, that’s one bucket of issues,” Hertner says. “But ‘alternative sexual orientations’? Aren’t we past that? We have lots and lots of kids who identify in ways that are not heteronormative in our schools, and they also need to see representation in their books. That makes me really upset.”
Attacking school libraries is not going to change the access of information you don’t want your child to have.
The local Moms For Liberty chapter is going even further, trying to get materials considered “progressive” and LGBTQ-inclusive removed, Schoening tells the Indy.
“It’s being perceived as propaganda and indoctrination when it comes in the form of gay cartoons in the library, rainbows everywhere,” she says. “That has nothing to do with inclusivity; that crosses the line into propaganda.”
Asked what that line is, Schoening says, “when you are actively encouraging kids to partake in the lifestyle or painting it out as ‘cool,’ you’ve crossed the line into propaganda.”
Sorensen tried to distance the Alliance’s efforts from Schoening’s comments.
“I would emphasize in the strongest possible terms that progressive activism, and LGBT content that is not sexually explicit, is not what we’re discussing here,” he says. “There isn’t any affiliation with the Moms For Liberty group, other than knowing who they are.”
Hertner is also looking to D20 as a signal of what may soon reach D11.
A flurry of book challenges is currently moving through committees in D20, which has been the epicenter of contentious “book ban” debates since early October. They came after School Board President Tom LaValley made a video encouraging parents to “stroll through the school library” to look for “objectionable material,” the Indy reported at the time.
One longtime D20 librarian told the Indy then that the volume of book challenges in the district has spiked over the last two school years, and many staff members saw LaValley’s comments as pitting parents against them.
Sorensen is also vice chair of Advocates for D20 Kids, which has the same aims as the Alliance, but he says it did not have a hand in the book challenges there. That group did, however, voice strong support for LaValley and his video comments, arguing he was supporting “parental rights.”
“You can have concerns, as a parent, totally validly, and it not be an attack on a librarian or a teacher,” Sorensen says. “I think you can be concerned about certain content in a school library, and still have respect for the librarian.”
The latest in D20 is that the Board of Education rejected the removal of two titles with themes of anti-racism, activism and resistance, and how Black Americans have been targeted by racist laws and policies throughout U.S. history. Both books were allowed to remain in Chinook Trail Middle School’s library.
Several D20 board members claimed that the books — How I Resist by Maureen Johnson and We Are Not Yet Equal by Carol Anderson — had “biases,” and they directed district staff to add books to the library that provide “an alternative or different perspective” to those in the challenged books.
As for D11, Devra Ashby, chief communications officer for the district, says in an email there have been no formal requests to remove books from D11 libraries during the 2022-2023 school year. The district calls them “Requests for Reconsideration of Library Media.”
Sorensen says the D11 Achievement Alliance doesn’t have concrete plans for book challenges yet. Right now, they’re focused on making as many people as possible aware of the content the group is objecting to, he says.
D11 Superintendent Michael Gaal tells the Indy he’s trying to remain “apolitical” on the issue. He notes the “reconsideration” process is available for book challengers to use if they wish — it’s part of a board policy and regulations around Library Media Selection — and he’s glad that avenue is available.
But Gaal believes the efforts by individuals or groups like the Alliance to remove certain books are “misplaced,” given the vast information accessible to kids outside of school these days. Parents concerned about their children consuming “offensive” content should look to the internet, social media and television, he says.
“I find great irony that we have parents pulling books from library shelves,” Gaal tells the Indy. “If you are worried about access to information, you’re searching in the wrong space.
“If you really want to go down that path, attacking school libraries is not going to change the access of information you don’t want your child to have,” he adds. “It is the world that has shifted. It’s not the library in the school.”
Sorensen says, “you’ve got to start somewhere.”
“I would acknowledge that there’s other avenues that these kids can access [the content], and it’s really a shame, because I think it’s harmful for these kids psychologically,” he says. “Anything that we could do to help mitigate that in some way is worth pursuing.”
Ultimately, whether a challenged book stays in a D11 school library could come down to a board decision (as they did in D20), if school-level and district-level decisions on the matter are appealed, according to the Library Media Selection policy.
A reconsideration request first goes through a school-based committee composed of staff members and “citizens from the school community,” and chaired by higher-level school staff, states the policy, which was last updated in December 2020. If their majority-rules decision is appealed, the challenge would then go to another committee with members from a wider pool of staff and the community, and a chair from district administration.
The process is a resource-suck, D20 Board Treasurer Heather Cloninger commented during both of that board’s regular meetings in November. She’s been against the book challenges, and wears a “Read Banned Books” button to meetings.
“I feel like we’ve wasted a lot of money and time,” Cloninger said, “on something that shouldn’t happen.”