ROXBURY — There were cheers, jeers and catcalls. Bibles were held aloft and librarians warned of censorship, as police stood guard to keep the peace.
A marathon Roxbury school board meeting drew hundreds of supporters on both sides of a dispute over LGBTQ-themed library books and explicit discussions of sexuality Tuesday night, in a town where a high school librarian’s lawsuit against four local residents has turned the debate personal.
The meeting drew a crowd that filled the 700-seat Eisenhower Middle School auditorium to full capacity. More than 60 people spoke during three hours of public comment that ended close to midnight.
They included Roxana Russo Caivano, the librarian whose lawsuit has drawn widespread media attention and advocacy groups on both sides of the debate.
“Many books at the high school cover topics like sex, drugs, cutting, violence, and unfortunately, many high school students go through these traumas,” said Caivano, a Roxbury High School graduate. “You’re kidding yourself if you think they’re not. these books are a way for them to deal with what they are suffering with.”
The controversy mirrors disputes that have flared across the nation where some parents have objected to sex education and LGBTQ-themed lessons and materials. In New Jersey, new state health curriculum standards have prompted outcries and a surge of conservative school board candidates in recent years.
Roxbury librarian’s lawsuit
Caivano’s lawsuit names four Roxbury residents who she says have labeled her a “child predator” and accused her of “luring children with pornography” in public and online. The suit, filed in state Superior Court in Morristown, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, a jury trial and legal expenses.
“Once you start making outrageous false comments about a public employee (who has) no interest in any political position, that is defamatory and it’s got to be addressed in the courts,” said her husband and attorney, Anthony Caivano.
But opponents of the books and the state mandate say books in the school library that they’ve challenged, such as “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel by a nonbinary author, contain material that’s inappropriate for minor students. They cite frank depictions of sexual acts and in some cases, graphic drawn images of sexual activity.
Some of the speakers at the meeting, including Cassie Anderson of Long Valley, read graphic passages from some of the books, including words and phrases rarely if ever heard at most board of education meetings.
“This is about protecting and defending children’s innocence and removing over-the top sexually explicit materials where minors attend,” said Anderson, who lives outside the school district.
Another man who read explicit passages from one of the books paused to look at the board and ask, “Are you uncomfortable yet?”
Ruby Sanders said most of the “concerned parents” were objecting to only 11 books in the library out of about 173 that could be classified as dealing with sexual activity or LGBTQ rights.
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“Parents are responsible for their children and if they want these books for their children, they can just order the books for them,” Sanders said. “Children do not need exposure to books that include these graphic drawings, naked adults with other adults performing sexual acts, speaking in sexual dialogue. Why are children being exposed to this?”
Other opponents read passages from Scripture, in some cases raising the Bible over their heads as they spoke. Some offered prayers.
Many in the audience, however, backed Caivano and the inclusion of books they say can provide comfort, guidance and education for LGBTQ students who often feel marginalized at school.
“You can’t learn in school if you are harassed, intimidated and bullied at school,” said Radwa Ali, director of the Roxbury Public Library, “I will not censor myself to be polite. The precision targeting and removal of books from school libraries based on ideology is nothing short of school-sanctioned bullying.”
Caivano said she seeks to have an inclusive library where students can find the information they need and want.
“In my library, I have books about Donald Trump and Barack Obama, about Hitler and Gandhi, about abstinence and STDs and yes, I have books about queer love and straight love,” Caivano said. “If there is something that you want on any topic, on any side of that topic, I probably have it, because that is what a school library is for. Free access.
“The books are there so students can find complete information, not just one side of the story. I can tell you this, no one is sneaking around the library looking for books with pictures in them for fun. They have phones for that.”
“My books are not part of the curriculum, so no one is compelled to read any of them,” Caivano added as she spoke over jeers from the crowd. “These are choice books. So why would you even think of suppressing that?”
The meeting was tense throughout the public comments. Most speakers drew applause and catcalls from opposing sides of the audience. There was a heavy presence of school security and uniformed police officers at the school, but there appeared to be no serious confrontations throughout the course of the long night.
Books stay on shelves
As the calendar turned to Thursday, with only about 100 people left in attendance, the board voted 6-4 against a motion to “temporarily” pull several of the books in question off the shelves. Many board members who voted “no” stated their vote was mainly made on procedural grounds because a special library committee formed to study the 11 books in question has not completed its report.
Board member Christopher Milde, also a member of the special committee, said one book had already been taken off the shelf, with access limited to students who had their parent’s permission to check it out. Nine more books are still under review. “Gender Queer” was returned to the bookshelf after it was reviewed.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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