At the beginning of Monday night’s Norman Public Schools Board of Education meeting, Angel Stuart-Worth stepped to the podium during the public comment period with a full audience behind her and three board members in front of her.
“Today, the growth in representative literature affords us an opportunity that I and those before me did not have to offer students a space in which they can feel seen and valued,” she said. “Instead, we’re forcing our teachers and librarians to be complicit in the erasure of the stories of those on the margins.”
Stuart-Worth was second parent that night to criticize book banning, a topic that has come to the fore of Oklahoma’s education conversation, and four other community members made similar arguments after her.
“If you tell people ‘Oh, you can’t read about these topics at a school,’ kids get the message that ‘I don’t matter, I’m not important, you don’t support me.'” said another parent, University of Oklahoma professor Cynthia Rogers. “And I don’t think that’s a message we want to send.”
Monday’s meeting marked the district’s first since Norman High School sophomore English teacher Summer Boismier resigned Aug. 23 amid controversy over a QR code she posted in her classroom.
The code linked to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, an initiative that provides free access to thousands of online e-books. A parent complained to the district when she saw the project advertising Gender Queer, a graphic novel about exploring one’s gender and sexuality.
Calling the award-winning book pornographic in an interview with KOKH Fox 25, the parent, Laney Dicksion, called for Boismier to face “criminal charges.”
The comments from parents during the meeting received some support from district leadership and board members.
Superintendent Nick Migliorino tried to assure the audience of the district’s support for teachers during his brief report at the end of the meeting.
“I want to say that without hesitation, we have always, we will continue to always support all of our employees,” Migliorino said.
After the meeting, two board members also expressed their thoughts on the public comments.
“I agree with the community members that banning books is wrong and that kids should have access to any literature that their parents are comfortable with them having,” board member Alex Ruggiers said.
Board member Dirk O’Hara addressed the Boismier’s resignation directly.
“She was making a statement about the state law, not the teachers, not this district,” O’Hara said. “I think she knows we supported her and we support what she’s trying to do.”
On Sept. 9, Ruggiers became the first board member to comment publicly on the situation when he released a statement on his website. He had previously not responded to multiple phone calls from NonDoc.
“The effect of this unjust and regressive law is a haze of fear that has already cost our city at least one highly-qualified educator,” Ruggiers said in the statement.
Though it is unclear if the QR code violated HB 1775, a controversial law banning the teaching of certain concepts of race and gender, Boismier has called herself a “walking HB 1775 violation.”
Since it was signed into law last year, many educators and an ACLU lawsuit have criticized the law for being too vague and overly broad.
The law has already caused accreditation downgrades of Tulsa Public Schools and Mustang Public Schools. Though books in school and classroom libraries have not specifically come under fire because of to HB 1775, many districts, including Norman, have created new library policies to try to avoid violating the law.
Several parents and a former student who addressed the situation in Norman during public comment all spoke about the importance of supporting teachers and allowing books to stay on shelves.
“At the heart of this is a labor issue,” said MaryAnn Martin, a Norman parent. “And respect and due process for your employees seems to go by the wayside.”
Former Norman North student Kevin Tobar also worried about what message the situation sent to teachers.
“The fact of the matter is that we are not keeping our teachers and we are not keeping their backs. We have to help them,” Tobar said.
Rogers started her comments by saying the district has a “really fine teaching staff.” She then echoed Stuart-Worth’s declarations that representation in books matters for students.
“When you don’t talk about things, you send a message to people in those communities that it’s not important, that you don’t support them, that it didn’t happen, that their concerns don’t matter, that they’re overreacting,” Rogers said. “Basically, it’s a cancel-culture move, and I don’t think there’s a place for that in education.”
Another parent, Heather Hall, who owns Green Feather Book Company, spoke about the personal impact of her kids not having access to books at their schools.
“I have a child who is LGBTQ+ who no longer has books in her school at Whittier that represent her,” Hall said.
Hall and her bookstore have become central to the effort to support Boismier by giving out free t-shirts and pins with the Brooklyn Library QR code on them. Hall, Boismier and a few others wore the shirts to the meeting.
‘An incredible educator’
Boismier did not speak to the board, but she did attend the meeting in which those who decried taking books off classroom shelves also said her departure was a loss for the district.
“We lost an incredible educator,” said Martin.
After the public comments, Boismier said it was “great to see” the community members showing support, but she took issue with Migliorino’s statement about supporting district employees.
“In my opinion, it would almost have been better had he said nothing,” Boismier said. “From what I heard, from what I understood, those were words with nothing behind them. I have not seen actions on the part of the board, I have not seen actions on the part of the superintendent to meaningfully back up our teachers.”
The board did not have an agenda item addressing the situation, so it did not take any action regarding Boismier or its book policy.
However, the State Board of Education could take action regarding the former English teacher at its upcoming Sept. 22 meeting.
As a result of Boismier’s resignation, Secretary of Education Ryan Walters and a group of Republican lawmakers are now calling for the state board to use HB 1775 to revoke Boismier’s teaching certificate, though it is unclear if she actually violated the law.
Walters, who is running with the Republican nomination for state superintendent of public instruction, has been a vocal proponent of using HB 1775 to end what he calls “left-wing indoctrination” in classrooms.
Norman City Councilman Rarchar Tortorello echoed Walters and those lawmakers during public comment at the Monday school board meeting, urging members to “leave the personal things to the parents to teach.”
“I ask that you stand strong and stand behind those teachers who are conservative that don’t want this type of lifestyle to be taught in the schools,” Tortorello said. “Go back to the way it was, go back to the way it was 25 years ago.”
Others encouraged the board to resist requests like Tortorello’s. Martin finished her time at the podium with a plea to the board.
“Please be brave. Please show leadership. Please stand up for your educators, even if that means you say nothing,” Martin said. “Just let your teachers teach and do their jobs instead of falling prey to the parents who are looking for trouble.”