Western Massachusetts District Attorney Was Disturbed By Reports of Gender Queer in Middle School — Initially

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/02/20/western-massachusetts-district-attorney-was-disturbed-by-reports-of-gender-queer-in-middle-school-initially/

Upon hearing about oral sex illustrations in a graphic novel recommended by an eighth grade teacher to certain students, the district attorney for Berkshire County was disgusted.

“This book needs to be out [of] that school forever right now – I don’t care if it’s artistic – if it depicts graphic sexual illustrations it has no place for minors to view and observe – do we allow heterosexual illustrated sexual books in the library?  I do not think so,” district attorney Timothy Shugrue, a Democrat, wrote.

But the superintendent of schools wasn’t.

“Based on my research it is a graphic novel and memoir of a gender fluid person and while out of context individual cartoons may be provocative, in context they are part of a compelling story that shares con[t]ext, build[s] empathy, and may be a lifeline for a subset of students making sense of identity,” Berkshire Hills Regional School District superintendent Peter Dillon wrote.

The two email messages from December 2023 are quoted in a report issued by a law firm hired by the Berkshire Hills School Committee, which oversees the middle school in the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington, where a complaint by a custodian launched a police investigation in December.

The police search on Friday, December 8, 2023 led to an uproar – not based on the content of the book, but instead on whether a police officer should have entered a school looking for it.

The school committee hired a law firm to investigate the incident. The report, written by Kevin Kinne, a partner in the Boston law firm Cohen, Kinne, Valicente, & Cook, is dated Friday, February 16, 2024.

The eighth grade English language arts teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Middle School, who has not been publicly named, identifies herself as “Mexican-American and “Queer,” according to the report. She is the adviser to the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. She graduated from nearby Bard College at Simon’s Rock and then worked at an independent bookstore before becoming a teacher at the middle school six years ago.

She was so traumatized by the investigation that she has not returned to work since, according to the report.

The investigation was spurred by the in-person report at the town’s police station of a school custodian who saw the 2019 book, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, which New Boston Post described in detail in an article published in January 2024. The book is a graphic novel that illustrates in cartoon form scenes from the life of the author, including masturbation and oral sex. The author identifies as non-binary, meaning not identifying as exclusively either male or female.

The custodian provided a photograph of two pages from the book showing illustrations of oral sex to Great Barrington Police Officer Joseph O’Brien.

The custodian, who no longer works at the school, also made allegations that the teacher had a student sit in her lap and held meetings after school with certain students and told them not to tell their parents about them – allegations the report says the custodian made without seeing the purported incidents and without evidence that they occurred. The report quotes the principal of the school as dismissing those allegations, and it says that in interviews with more than a dozen staff members “all of them said that they have never seen the Teacher engage in any inappropriate conduct with students or otherwise.”

The report says the teacher bought Gender Queer with her own money and kept it in her classroom, recommending it to certain students. The school library doesn’t have the book and the school doesn’t use it in its ordinary curriculum, but the school librarian put the teacher’s copy of it on display for Banned Books Week during the fall of 2023, the report says.

When the police officer showed up at the school, he could not find the book in the classroom, and he asked the principal to provide it to him sometime in the future.

“Officer O’Brien explained that, based upon the limited information he had on the book in the form of the two pages that had been presented to him at the Police Station, it was important to see the whole book to determine whether the Book could be considered ‘obscene’ material that cannot be disseminated to minors,” the report issued by a law firm hired by the school district states.

Neither the superintendent of schools nor the principal of the school had ever heard of the book, the report states.

On Thursday, December 14, after a discussion between the district attorney and the superintendent, the district attorney decided the book was a matter for school officials to decide.

“It appears the school is aware, and they are taking the proper safeguards. It does not appear to be a criminal matter,” Shugrue wrote in an email message.


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