Concerned Citizens of Hermon will either take out recall petitions this week or wait to advance its own candidates for the June election.
Hermon High School is seen in this Dec. 14, 2022, file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hermon parents who Monday night lost their fight in a 5-1 vote to limit student access to school library books containing explicit sexual material are considering a recall campaign to unseat the school board members who did not support their efforts.

Regina Leonard, spokesperson for the group Concerned Citizens of Hermon, said after the vote that members will decide this week whether to take out petitions to force a recall election or to wait until the town election in June and work to put candidates who support its positions on the Hermon School Committee.

More than 100 residents, parents, students, teachers and staff attended Monday night’s meeting. Of those, about a dozen spoke in favor of identifying books in the library that have sexual content and a handful of others, including the students who spoke, opposed it.

Those who supported identifying books with sexual content denied they wanted to ban books from the school libraries but those who opposed the idea said it was the censorship of ideas.

Amy Oliver Stubbs, who supports efforts to identify books with sexual content, told the board that the system for choosing volumes for the school libraries was outdated. She also thanked parents who spoke out at the meeting and had contacted the group to express their concerns.

“We strongly believe that implementing age-appropriate sexual content standards will benefit the administration, teachers and students of our district,” she said. “The goal of implementing age-appropriate standards for books within our three libraries in order to protect children from unnecessary and potentially damaging sexual content is an honorable one.”

Matthew Dawes, a junior at Hermon High School, told committee members that some of the books identified as having sexual content had helped classmates recover from their own traumatic experiences. He said that a book he read in middle school about how children that age react to trauma helped him understand its impact.

“Those who have gone through trauma can read these books that can trigger that trauma or bring a sense of comfort to them,” he said.

School Committee member Haily Keezer, who was elected to her first three-year term in June, twice proposed sending the library book policy back to the subcommittee reworking it with the instruction that it form an ad hoc made up of residents and staff to develop content standards for library books. Both times her motion failed for lack of a second.

Keezer was the only committee member to vote against the policy as proposed. It does not include content standards.

Board member Stephanie Oiler, who voted against the policy last month on its first reading, voted with the majority Monday night. Others who supported the book policy as proposed were: Chair Jesse Keith, Vice Chair Kristen Shorey, whose term ends in June, Debbie CoWallace and Shannon Knowles.

Christopher McLaughlin, who voted for the policy as proposed on its first reading, was unable to attend Monday’s meeting. CoWallace and Knowles represent Regional School Unit 87, made up of Carmel and Levant, whose students attend Hermon High School. They only vote on items that concern or include the high school.

Grace Kelly and Eva Benjamin, the student representatives on the board, who may participate in discussions but may not vote, spoke in opposition to identifying books with explicit sexual content.

Two members of the Hermon Town Council, Danielle Haggerty and Derek Wood, spoke in support of a policy that would identify sexual content in library books.

Wood said that an ad hoc committee would open channels of communication and “allow both parties to outline their positions as well as to express their concerns, their fears, their expectations and their ambitions. I do believe the school committee and the community of Hermon can find common ground that promotes collaboration and a respectful approach to adopt a reasonable solution.”

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.

Kimberly Stewart said the controversy has divided the community.

“I speak for many here when I say the past year as a Hermon parent and resident has been unsettling, frustrating, confusing and scary,” she said. “The tension in our community is palpable. We’ve been distracted and derailed by personal agendas external to our community, and it’s done nothing but create detriment to our school district, educators, parents and children. It’s time we take our voices back and refocus on what we know to be true. Only we, the Hermon community, can put a stop to this.”

She suggested that the school committee adopt a policy that all books be “checked out” even if they don’t leave the libraries.

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. Parents also can prevent their children from using the school libraries at all.

One idea some parents support would not allow students to access books in the elementary, middle and high school libraries that contain: visual or 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.

Other parents have suggested a ratings system similar to the one used for movies, television shows and video games.

Members of the group said that using the suggested standards they have identified more than 80 books, including one in the Hermon Middle School library, containing explicit sexual content. They presented school committee members with a copy of a report outlining their review of the library system’s catalog.

The books “contained references to sexual activity, erotic content, explicit descriptions of sexual assault including child rape, sexual abuse, explicit sexual activities, prostitution involving minor, and/or bestiality commentary,” the report said.

If Concerned Citizens of Hermon were to launch a recall effort, it would not be the first in town. Hermon voters in 1999 ousted three School Committee members in a successful recall effort. The group that led the effort cited the creation of two new administrative positions at an annual cost of $112,000 and the dismissal of the high school’s popular ROTC instructor as reasons to unseat the three members.

The Hermon town charter allows five registered voters to begin recall proceedings by requesting in writing from the town clerk the appropriate petitions. They have 30 days from the acceptance date of the request by the town clerk to gather 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. The town clerk has two weeks to certify the petitions after the 30-day deadline passes.

Once the petitions are certified, the town council must set a special recall election within 30 days, the charter says. If the recall is successful, an election to fill those seats must be held in 28 days.

In the gubernatorial election on Nov. 8,  Hermon voters cast 3,308 ballots, according to the clerk’s office. To succeed in getting a recall election, petitioners would need to gather 827 certified signatures.