"The Battle Over Books:" Nationwide trend of book censorship reaches Michiana

Are political action committees turning public schools into political battlegrounds?

There's growing support from some local school board members with ties to these national committees to suspend, and in some cases, ban books with sexual or violent scenes and regulate what's taught in classrooms.

This is happening most notably in Berrien County, where a group called "We The Parents" is helping elect school board members that enforce what they call "traditional American values of faith, family, and freedom."

The group has been most successful in the Brandywine school district in Niles where last year, four candidates were elected to a seven-member board.

The growing movement to censor books in schools is a nationwide issue and is directly linked to political pressure. School districts are removing books from libraries at a record pace, according to Pen America. During the 2021-22 school year, 138 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2,500 books.

Jen Unger, a Brandywine Parent, is concerned about what the trend means for her young children.

"I want my children to be able to go into those libraries and look at any books that they want, Unger said."

Unger is a parent of three first-grade students at Merritt Elementary in Niles.

She's struggling with the idea that her kids won't be able to access books that she believes are important to their educational development in the future.

In February, Brandywine school board voted to suspend the addition of any sexually explicit or violent books from entering the middle and high school libraries. They also moved to create an 'Explicit Material Book Review Committee' to evaluate the books already in the school library.

Tiffany: "So, do you think the school board is acting in the best interest of the community?"

Jen: "I do not. I think they're acting in their best interest and not on what's going to be the best for the students and then the staff at the schools that they're supposed to be serving."

This is all part of a bigger picture issue, with school board races across the country becoming more political and more parents wanting a say in their children's education.

The 20-22 school board elections at Brandywine Community Schools brought four new faces to serve the district, all of whom are supported by We The Parents, a parental rights group financially backed by the 1776 Project, a conservative political action committee or PAC.

The committee formed back in 2021 to push back against the New York Times' 1619 Project, which provides free lesson plans that center U.S. history around slavery and its lasting impacts.

The super PAC received $3,00,000 in donations in 2022, according to Open Secrets,  a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.

In Michigan alone, Transparency USA, a group tracking money in state politics, shows over $56,000 in contributions went to "We The Parents” last year.

The group supported almost 30 school board candidates across 10 different schools in Berrien County but they were most successful in Brandywine.

"It seems that they have a more political agenda than focusing on the needs of the students of our district," Unger said about the recently elected We The Parents backed school board members.

On November 9th, 2022, after Board President Thomas Payne, Secretary Angela Seastrom, and Trustees Michelanne Mccombs and Elaine Mckee won their elections, The 1776 Project PAC tweeted, "We just flipped the Brandywine school board from liberal to conservative."

Unger voted for all four We The Parents backed school board members and it's something she says she now regrets.

"I just didn't do my part as a parent and as a taxpayer to make sure I knew what I was voting for," Unger said.

The We The Parents group touts a mission of recruiting, equipping and retaining “a new generation of school board candidates that are grounded in the traditional American values of faith, family, and freedom.”

At face value, Unger says it sounded like a good option but after taking a closer look at the group's push to "remove all forms of sexual, racial, political and gender indoctrination" from schools, she's realizing she disagrees with them.

"If you recognize the name, and you're not necessarily even doing some homework or have children in the district, I think you're just voting for by popular knowing their name, versus what they're running for," Unger said.

The big question is why are books that have been in school libraries for centuries getting challenged now?

Interview requests sent to We The Parents and the 1776 Project PAC went unanswered.

ABC57 also did not get a response for an interview request from Brandywine School Board President Thomas Payne, until showing up in person.

When requesting an interview with Payne at the March 27 board meeting he said, "Not tonight. But I will email you back and I'll my put phone number on there and then we can potentially set up a time. I'm really not doing interviews but let me think about it."

Payne did send an email the next day, but ABC57 was unable to set up an interview. A final email asking for at least a statement, went unanswered.

Former Brandywine School Board President Dennis Hinsey did agree to an interview request. He served on the school board for 16-years, until Payne was voted into the role last year.

 “I held every position from trustee to Secretary Treasurer, Vice President and most recently President up to December 31," Hinsey said.

Hinsey isn't surprised that the incumbents on the Brandywine school board were voted out in 2022.

With PAC’s pouring money into school board races, it’s fairly easy to flip control of who governs a school and for much less than it would cost to elect someone to the house or senate.

The 1776 Project PAC’s website shows they’ve endorsed candidates all over the country, even impacting bigger school board races like in Miami-Dade County in Florida where over 300,000 students are enrolled.

 “Being a part of a political action committee is there's money funneled in all over the country to help advertise," Hinsey said. "And knowing that there were mailers going to homes, there was text messages, there was sponsored social media post, that all costs a lot of money, that the average person just trying to help his school or her school, they just won't do it. So, they had, you know, huge signs. It was basically name recognition.”

Winning local school board races can impact education on a national scale as we’re seeing now with the push to censor books in schools with several states passing new laws.

In Indiana, lawmakers passed a bill in February to ban books “harmful to minors” in school libraries.

In Michigan, House Bill 4136 was also introduced in February. Called “the library privacy act," it doesn’t ban specific books, but calls for books with “obscenities” to be kept in age-restricted areas of a library.

Pen America, a left-leaning organization dedicated to promoting free speech and journalism, says 40% of book bans in the last year have been connected to political pressure or legislation designed to restrict and reshape teaching.

Hinsey thinks the push to ban books has become a talking point for politicians and it's not a real issue.

“I went back and there was some push back last fall when I was President and we double checked, and I double checked, that in the last almost 20 years, there has never been a challenge from a parent for a challenge from anywhere about a book in the library [at Brandywine]," Hinsey said. “We're not talking about kindergarteners, what do you consider sexually explicit? A National Geographic? You know, I mean, that's such a broad line. And we want kids, students to be able to maybe see something that they could be uncomfortable with, and ask, and because if we don't let them, they're going to find it. They're going to they're gonna learn about it one way or the other.”

In the Brandywine school district, Hinsey explains that parents have always had the right to be involved in their child’s education. He sees it as creating problems that don’t exist.

The director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, echoes that sentiment.

“I can't think of a single public library for example that doesn't have a reconsideration policy in place that allows someone to raise a concern and talk about it with a librarian," Caldwell-Stone said.

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest non-partisan organization dedicated to library services in the world. Censorship challenges in school libraries are something Caldwell-Stone says can be detrimental to a child’s educational success.

"When young people are allowed to read freely, they gain something from that and they're better citizens, they are better prepared to enter College, be effective parts of the military force, or join the workforce. And so, when we narrow their opportunity to learn, when we treat education as indoctrination rather than an opportunity to expand horizons, we can see the real impact on young lives," Caldwell-Stone said.

Caldwell-stone believes that book banning is the most widespread form of censorship in the united states and, arguably, the most dangerous form too.

She says banning books can have major impacts on children, and society as a whole, by creating gaps in knowledge for young learners and undermining efforts to teach students to think for themselves.

 “We've seen quadrupling of the reports of censorship in school libraries in public libraries in the last year," Deborah Caldwell-Stone said. “I’ve done this work for 20 years and I've never seen numbers like this in the past and we're just really deeply concerned about the impact on young people's education, their ability to read widely about the world in general about their lives in particular and what it means for our democracy to have government agencies trying to tell individuals and tell families what they can and can't read.”

According to the American Library Association, the number one most banned book in the last decade was "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

"Captain Underpants" (series) by Dav Pilkey is actually the second most banned book in America.

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher ranks third, and "Looking For Alaska" by John Green is the fourth most banned book.

"Looking for Alaska" was recently challenged in the Coloma, Michigan school district. So far, no specific books have been banned locally, but the conversation over potential censorship in school libraries is ongoing.

You can read the full list of the most frequently challenged books here.

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