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Complaint Over Book Leads to “Police State” Search of Massachusetts Classroom

“Disagreements about books are not a reason for law enforcement involvement,” one critic said of the action.

Gender Queer, a graphic novel about a nonbinary teen, sits on a table during the Barrington District 220 school board meeting on August 16, 2022, in Barrington, Illinois.

Civil rights advocates are decrying a Massachusetts police department’s response to an anonymous complaint about an LGBTQ-centric book at a school, calling the department’s action — sending an officer to the school to “investigate” the matter — an overreach and an intimidation tactic.

A plainclothes officer wearing a body camera entered a middle school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, earlier this month in search of a single book after the police department received a complaint from a community member about its contents.

That individual, who is yet to be identified, took issue with the award-winning graphic novel “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe being available to students.

“Gender Queer” is a memoir about teenage exploration of gender identity and sexuality, and includes some imagery that alludes to sexual encounters. The novel was the most banned book last year, according to data compiled by the American Library Association (ALA). It has been cited by many LGBTQ readers as helping them to better understand their own journeys growing up.

Upon receiving the complaint about the novel, the Great Barrington Police Department claimed it was required to act, as the anonymous person alleged the material was obscene and pornographic. The school cooperated with the officer’s request on December 8 to search a classroom that supposedly contained the book, though the book was not found and the investigation was ultimately dropped.

“Because this complaint was made directly to the police department, we are obligated and have a duty to examine the complaint further,” police chief Paul Storti said regarding the matter.

Most school districts have their own processes for dealing with books that parents or community members object to. However, it appears that the school district cooperated with the police search, which civil rights advocates have condemned as out of line.

“These are the tactics of a police state. … There is no serious argument that this book would give rise to the basis for any criminal investigation,” Ruth Bourquin, senior managing attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, told WGBH about the incident.

In comments to The Berkshire Eagle, Bourquin elaborated, saying:

We’re very troubled by this notion. They say anytime someone could call they have an obligation to go marching into places wearing a body cam, and you know, interrogating people.

The ACLU of Massachusetts cannot recall any instances of police entering a school in order to search for a book that someone objected to, Bourquin added.

Jennifer Varney, former president of the Massachusetts School Library Association, also denounced the police investigation.

“Disagreements about books are not a reason for law enforcement involvement,” Varney told WGBH. “Concerns about a book in a school should be brought to the teacher, librarian, or principal.”

The school district recognized that it erred in cooperating with the police department. “Faced with an unprecedented police investigation of what should be a purely educational issue, we tried our best to serve the interests of students, families, teachers, and staff,” read a statement from Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and Superintendent Peter Dillion. “In hindsight, we would have approached that moment differently. We are sorry.”

Book bans and challenges to titles across the U.S. have reached their highest levels ever recorded, according to a preliminary report from the ALA in September. According to that analysis, there was a 20 percent increase in challenges to books in 2023 compared to the number of challenges the prior year, with nearly 2,000 titles being targeted.

“Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the ALA wrote in its report, noting that many challenges were part of a well-funded far right campaign to censor such subjects under the guise of “parental rights.”

“Groups with a political agenda have turned their crusade to public libraries, the very embodiment of the First Amendment in our society,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, regarding the preliminary report. “This places politics over the well-being and education of young people and everyone’s right to access and use the public library.”

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