So far, the group Concerned Hermon School District Community Members has identified more than 80 books they claim have sexual content.
Hermon High School is seen in this Dec. 14, 2022, file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A group of Hermon parents have mobilized to identify books in the town’s school libraries with sexual content. So far, the group Concerned Hermon School District Community Members has identified more than 80 books it claims have sexual content.

In response, a School Committee member on Monday is expected to offer an amendment to the department’s library book policy that would limit access to books with sexually explicit material in the town’s school libraries.

The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Hermon High School auditorium and streamed online.

Last month, a version of the department’s library book policy that did not include any statements about books with sexual content passed 5-2 after a first reading.

Policies can only pass after two readings and two committee votes.School Committee members Haily Keezer and Stephanie Oiler voted against the library book policy.

Oiler said she voted against it because she thinks a compromise can be reached between parents who support identifying books that contain sexual content and school staff who are concerned that adoption of the policy will lead to book banning.

“I don’t think it’s really censorship, and it’s not at all about banning a book,” Hermon parent Regina Leonard told CBS affiliate WABI last week. “It’s just parents having the control over what’s available to our children outside of our homes, and that we don’t feel that this type of sexual material is what should be taught or provided to our children in school walls.”

The group claims its goal is not to ban books but to persuade the School Committee to create a ratings system similar to those used to rate movies, television programs and video games.

Conservative organizations across the country have made similar proposals but with  little success so far in Maine.

One idea some parents support would not allow students to access books in the elementary, middle and high school libraries that contain: visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts; explicit or implied written descriptions of sexual acts; or visual depictions of specified anatomical areas without parental consent. There would be an exception in the middle and high schools for diagrams about anatomy in science books.

Hermon schools have a policy that allows parents to opt their children out of curriculum material they deem inappropriate. The department also allows parents to prevent a student from checking out certain books, but not from taking them off the shelves and perusing them.

“The opt-out system only protects the child from checking the book out,” Leonard said. “It does not protect the child from taking it off the shelf and reading within the library. So for me, that doesn’t really work either. What we’re asking for is a rating system for all the books per school, elementary, middle and high school, because those ratings should be different as the kids are older.

“And if the books do not fall within the rating system, then they’re not there,” she continued. “And if a parent chooses to provide that to their child, that’s their right and their choice to do so but not within schools.”

About half a dozen Hermon parents and residents have spoken out about the issue at school committee meetings over the past year. The controversy began when parents expressed concern over a display of LGBTQ books in the high school library in late 2021, according to Superintendent Micah Grant.

That brought conservative activist Shawn McBreairty of Hampden to town. His alleged harassment of staff led the school department to sue him in Penobscot County Superior Court to collect damages to recoup funds the district spent on counseling and support services for staff. That case is pending.

Grant said last month that there were no books with sexual content in the elementary and middle school libraries. Decisions about which books should be in school libraries are best left to librarians, he said.

“The School Committee puts a lot of trust and confidence in the professional judgment of staff to pick age-appropriate books,” he said.

Teachers feel that they are under attack by a small group of parents. Third-grade teacher Erin York, president of the Hermon Education Association, asked the committee in October to support the town’s teachers.

“Educators here know what’s best for our students,” she said. “We have the training. We have the knowledge. We have the experience.”

And “everything we do is for our students,” she added.

Parents who support adding a policy about sexual content in books disagree. They have told committee members that they know what is best for their children.

“Our public schools should be the standard bearer for our community and emulate the highest educational, moral and social standards,” parent Brian Veneziano said. “How can a public school demonstrate high moral and social standards while allowing explicit sexual content in our libraries? I challenge any educator to explain how explicit sexual content is needed to achieve the Maine Learning Results or meet the social, emotional and educational needs of our children.”

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that parents want to ban books with sexually explicit content from the town’s school libraries.