Wyoming’s Republican nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction on Monday publicly opposed the inclusion of two sexually-graphic books in a Casper high school library.
“Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” and “Gender Queer,” which survived a book challenge last month, now are under review by the Natrona County School Board. The board received an appeal Thursday of a district-appointed committee’s decision to keep both books in the school.
Megan Degenfelder, who won the Republican nomination for the state’s education superintendent seat in August, said during a Monday school board meeting that both books are inappropriate for a public school setting.
“Having reviewed these excerpts, such explicit images – of any sexual orientation – are not only beyond the scope of the content and performance standards of our sexual education and health standards, but they’re not suitable for minors that are under the age of sexual consent,” said Degenfelder. “And they are an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.”
The books contain “graphic images of sexually explicit and arousing acts,” she said.
People defending the books’ inclusion in the school library have largely done so because the books are transgender- and non-binary-affirming. Conversely, people opposing the books have done so largely because they consider them to be “pornographic.”
Degenfelder addressed these arguments, saying that “explicit and arousing sexual graphics are not the best or only way to support our LGBTQ students.”
Degenfelder said that if elected in November, she will work with all Wyoming school districts to navigate the issue. She also said that she’s a firm believer in local control, including a school board’s authority over books and curriculum in its district. That authority is vested in the Wyoming Constitution and statute, she noted.
“The decision on the books is entirely one for a local school district, and I come to you tonight as a candidate for office, responding to the needs and voices of voters across the state and within your community,” said Degenfelder.
Degenfelder was raised in Casper and attended public school in the district. Her father served on the Natrona County School Board for several terms, she told the board Monday.
Sergio Maldonado, the Democratic nominee, is opposing Degenfelder in the general election.
The board in 1982 established a process by which to consider book challenges, involving a reconsideration committee appointed by the superintendent, which reviews books and decides whether to keep them.
Natrona County’s district-appointed committee opted in September to keep both “Gender Queer” and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” in the Kelly Walsh High School library, issuing a report that said the books help to represent a “balanced collection representing various views.”
Dr. Charlotte Gilbar, chair of the reconsideration committee, signed the report, but the other members were not identified in it.
The Natrona County School Board received an official appeal last Thursday, according to board member Rita Walsh.
Walsh said the school board will review the reconsideration committee’s recommendation and have a public vote by the end of November.
The general election in which 15 candidates are vying for four open Natrona County school board seats is Nov. 8.
Board members spoke in support of greater transparency going forward, following the revelation that “Gender Queer” has been available in the Natrona County High School library without the knowledge of community members.
The book was challenged because of its presence in the other district high school, Kelly Walsh.
District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland told Cowboy State Daily in a Monday email that on Oct. 20, school district officials learned the book had been ordered in January but not put into the library database or placed on the library shelves.
However, a student read the book, Southerland said.
“We understand there is an increased stakeholder interest regarding the availability of books in public school libraries,” said Southerland, adding, “We are committed to continuing to inform stakeholders of learning resources and materials available to students.”
Walsh addressed public commenters’ concerns at the meeting after some community members said they had been “lied to.”
“The comment that you were all lied to – that upsets us that the book wasn’t in (the database),” said Walsh. “We try to be very transparent. It was news to us, and so that has been brought forward to the administration and will be addressed and taken care of, and hopefully these things don’t happen again.”
Board member Dave Applegate offered a proposed framework for the board’s review and future categorization of library materials, drawing from DC Comics’ graphic-novel rating system.
For the comic company, a “mature” rating is for people ages 17 and older, and includes materials with intense violence, intensive profanity, nudity, sexual themes and other content “suitable for older readers,” Applegate noted.
The lesser category of “teen plus” for people 15 and older may contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes. Applegate said the board also needs to define “erotica” in its policies, since librarians are not supposed to acquire erotica for the library.
Applegate emphasized that while this may be a useful framework to address library materials’ accessibility going forward, it is not meant to undermine concerns on either side of the debate. He lauded the “bravery” of LGBTQ people and especially students for presenting their concerns about representation before the board, and said the board should recognize mental health professionals’ concerns about higher suicidality in these groups.
On the other side of the debate, he said parents have “a right to know what their children learn at school” and a right to limit exposure to mature subject matter.