RSU 34 Superintendent David Walker (left) and school board chair Jim Dill (right) sit side by side during the RSU 34 school board meeting March 16, 2022 in the Leonard Middle School. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

It took until the final months of David Walker’s 46-year career in education for a parent to request that a book be banned from a school library.

School districts across the country have seen an uptick in challenges to books in their libraries from conservative parents and policymakers over the past year. In Maine, a statewide education organization earlier this year said that schools here had also seen an uptick in such challenges.

But Regional School Unit 34 — which serves Old Town, Alton and Bradley — had avoided those politically charged conversations until December, when a parent filed a formal complaint that requested the book “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur be removed from the Leonard Middle School library and two classrooms that have copies.

It was a first for Walker, who’s retiring from his post as superintendent of the district in June. But, “I don’t think this will be the last one,” he said.

“Milk and Honey,” which came out in 2014, is among the dozens of books that parents in Texas have sought to ban from school libraries in that state. It’s a book of poetry detailing a young woman’s story of sexual assault and how she grew from it. In RSU 34, the objections to the book centered around the author’s depiction of sexual assault and abuse, the subject of the first of four sections of the book. The book isn’t part of the district’s curriculum, but an option for students to read if they’re interested.

Rupi Kaur’s 2014 book “Milk and Honey” sits on display inside the Briar Patch Bookshop in Bangor, March 17, 2022. RSU 34 recently had to decide the fate of the book after a parent asked for the book to be banned. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Since a parent filed a formal complaint, under RSU 34 policy the district formed a special committee to review the book. That committee, made up of a principal, librarian, teacher and community member, ultimately recommended it stay on the shelves at the middle school. But the parent appealed the decision, which is how it ended up before RSU 34’s board at a meeting Wednesday night.

The board resoundingly rejected the appeal, allowing the book to remain on district shelves.

Before the board considered the complaint Wednesday, it opened up the floor for public comment. Teachers and students spoke with a unified message in support of keeping the book: One parent’s choice for their child should not dictate whether the rest of the students in the school district have access to the title.

The first person to speak was Gert Nesin, the principal of Leonard Middle School and the facilitator of the review committee.

“The first few chapters…representing sexual assault and its effects are descriptive and disturbing, as is sexual assault,” she said. “Sexual encounters, both voluntary and involuntary, are part of our students’ lives, even as young as sixth grade.”  

Some 4.3 percent of Maine middle school students reported having experienced forced sexual contact in the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. In Penobscot County, 7.2 percent of middle school respondents said they had already had sexual intercourse.

Young people at Leonard Middle School are likely among those respondents to the survey, and the book provides students with material that is helpful for their growth, Nesin said.

A number of RSU 34 educators and several parents followed Nesin, highlighting the need to keep the book in the school.

Not every child needs to read “Milk and Honey,” and not every child is ready to read the work, said Shianne Priest, a teacher at the middle school and parent of a middle-school student.

“Meanwhile, there may be another child that needs that book,” she said. “Every banned book is not for every child, but every banned book might save one child. And one child saved is enough to convince me not to remove a resource entirely.”

While the matter is over in RSU 34, Walker said he doesn’t think this will be the last time the school unit will have to deal with a request to take a controversial work off its shelves. But he has hope that the board’s actions signal what he has tried to instill throughout his 17-year tenure as superintendent of Old Town-area schools.

“It truly comes down to a parent’s right,” he said Thursday. “I think what the board did last night was to validate a parent’s right to determine.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...