KPS superintendent responds to Innis comments about books in school libraries
KEARNEY, Neb. - Leadership at Kearney Public Schools is addressing statewide conversations about controversial books.
Superintendent Jason Mundorf sent a message to district parents on Tuesday afternoon adding context to comments made on an Omaha radio show. Conservative activist Matt Innis said on KFAB’s Scott Voorhees Show that Kearney Public Schools stocked the book “Looking for Alaska” in its libraries and condemned the district for offering it.
Mundorf confirmed the book is available and stood by the choice.
“I’m not the moral arbiter for the entire community. We have a lot of diversity, we have a lot of people with a lot of different viewpoints. Within those viewpoints, they bring forward different arguments. Again, we feel like the best balance is transparency.”
Parents have questioned school districts across the country about offering “Looking for Alaska” because of a sexually explicit scene. The conversation has surfaced here because of a graphic tweet posted by the Nebraska G-O-P on Friday. The image was from the book “Gender Queer”, which isn’t available at Kearney schools. Still, Mundorf said it’s necessary to consider the perspective of an LGBTQ student.
“Basically, they don’t see representation or they don’t have people who have understanding or lived experiences. Through these books or fictional characters, they may find some relatability that’s important.”
In January, Kearney Public Schools added an optional layer of control for parents who may not want their children exposed to certain books. The district’s Library Use Policy says parents can opt in to be contacted to give consent before their children check out books from a school library.
“It was a proactive step by the school district to really give parents a voice. We feel like it’s a rightful place for a parent to determine that within the confines of their home, they know what their children are exposed to in the classrooms, in our libraries, in the school.”
The district says some have opted into the policy but it’s less than five percent of parents. KPS does offer a formal complaint process in which someone can challenge the inclusion of a book, but a complaint hasn’t been filed in at least six years.
“I think the parents understand, ‘hey the school is trying to be transparent, the school is trying to give us a voice, it’s not all or none. We get the opportunity in our home to effectively say we do agree with or want that material or we don’t.’”
Innis also criticized the books “Brave Face” and “It Feels Good to be Yourself”. Mundorf says one copy of “Brave Face” is available at Kearney Public Schools and “It Feels Good to be Yourself” is not.
The full statement from the school district can be read below:
“Dear KPS Stakeholders:
It came to my attention yesterday morning that on Scott Voorhees’s morning show aired on KFAB 1110, Matt Innis, a Crete resident and political hopeful, was asked a series of questions regarding the book " GenderQueer”. This book is at the center of some recent Twitter posts between Jane Kleeb and a member of the Nebraska GOP which removed the Twitter response to Mrs. Kleeb. In the book, there is a sexually explicit picture that was the basis of the graphic tweet, and Mr. Innis was asked about the book. After some back and forth with the host, Mr. Innis also read some excerpts from a different book “Looking for Alaska” and stated that book was housed at Kearney High School and the Hanny Arram Center for Success along with many other districts in Nebraska. Furthermore, Mr. Innis also went on to make a brief mention of the book “Brave Face” and “It Feels Good to Be Yourself”. Mr. Innis discussed the proposed recommended reading levels of the book and made listeners question whether or not these books were in their local public schools and to which students they were available.
After a quick review with our media professionals, the book " GenderQueer” is not in publication in any Kearney Public School library, nor is the book “It Feels Good to Be Yourself”. The book Brave Face has one copy at Kearney High School, and the book “Looking for Alaska’' has five copies at Kearney High School and one copy at the Hanny Arram Center for Success. While many will argue the value of these books to young readers, the fact of the matter is Kearney Public Schools serves a number of students in the LGBTQ community. We have students who are facing internal questions regarding their gender and sexual identity. These books can provide a context by which some student readers can identify with someone (even if it’s a fictional character) who has had similar struggles. We try to support all students as these “issues” can be at the heart of social-emotional, mental health struggles for many young people.
Our district employs incredibly thoughtful and passionate media specialists who review titles on an annual basis to provide books which are of interest to young readers and reflective of the challenges students often face. These media specialists are hard-working professionals who make their media centers a source of learning for all students, not a place of political ideologies or a subversive progressive movement. They are likely people you attend church or socialize with in your personal gatherings. They have thoughtful conversations and review of materials that are selected to be in our libraries. They make difficult decisions to appropriately provide books for young readers while navigating political discussions and gaslighting from individuals who may or may not have all of the correct information.
Kearney Public Schools is incredibly supportive of parents and your rights to determine what materials your children have access to. We have a well-defined Library Use Policy that affords parents the opportunity to determine if they would like to be contacted and give consent prior to their children checking out books from the school libraries. This policy is a direct reflection of a proactive effort by Kearney Public Schools to have transparency with their parents and afford them the opportunity to choose which materials they would like their children to read, or not read. To our knowledge, we are one of the only districts in the state that employ this policy to meet the needs of our parents.
Our district also gives parents and stakeholders the opportunity to contest materials selected for our libraries through board policies and processes. If you feel the district should remove a title from one of our libraries, parents can initiate that process with a formal written complaint to the school principal. A review committee will look at the complaint and make a decision regarding the request for removal. Appeal processes are also provided through the Superintendent and the Board of Education.
This is a challenging time for students, schools, staff, and parents. We remain committed in Kearney Public Schools to provide appropriate and needed resources for all of our students to navigate their educational journeys. We e do this in conjunction with our parents offering them the chance to be involved in determining what they want their children to read. Parental involvement and voice are core foundations to the educational process and we will continue to do our best to tailor to all of our families.