State board rejects appeal that sought to pull ‘Gender Queer’ from school library

By: - August 4, 2022 6:34 pm

“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was the most-banned book of 2021 but it never made the best-seller list. (Photo via the Minnesota Reformer)

The Iowa Board of Education refused Thursday to review a decision by the West Des Moines School District that keeps a book about LGBTQ identity on library shelves.

Last year, Teri Patrick of Clive complained about the book, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is available for check-out at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School, a West Des Moines school campus for ninth grade students. Patrick wrote in the complaint that some of the book’s content violated state law which prohibits giving minors explicit material. The book, by Maia Kobabe, includes scenes which involve sexual activity and masturbation.

The West Des Moines school board voted in March to keep “Gender Queer” on school library shelves. Patrick then filed an appeal of the board’s decision to the state Department of Education.

Members of the state agency’s Board of Education denied the appeal Thursday, agreeing with an administrative law judge’s finding that Patrick lacked standing to bring the case, noting that her child was a sophomore and so she could not be aggrieved.

Alan Ostergren, who represented Patrick in the appeal, said that the Iowa Supreme Court has previously ruled that any member of a community connected with a school district can challenge school board opinions.

Ostergren, president and chief counsel of The Kirkwood Institute, took the case pro bono because of how important the topic was, he said. He told the board Thursday that “reform is coming” to public schools, as parents feel ignored by decisions like the move to keep “Gender Queer” in a school library.

“The question is, will the infrastructure of public education in Iowa show any ability to reform itself?” Ostergren said. “Is there going to be any ability to do that? Any sliver of anybody in authority standing up and saying, ‘You know what, maybe we’re going a little too far. Maybe we’re sexualizing children too much. Maybe we should listen to people and not just assume that because we’re credentialed, we know everything.’”

Legislation creating a criminal penalty for teachers or school officials who provide “obscene material” or “hard-core pornography” was proposed in the Iowa legislature this session but did not pass.

Kristy Latta of the Ahlers and Cooney law firm, who represented West Des Moines school district, argued that the state board did not have jurisdiction and asked members to leave judging the book’s merit to the school and school district.

She pointed out that while people were entitled to different opinions about “Gender Queer,” the book was not assigned in any classes and was simply made available in the school library. If a parent does not want their child to read a specific book, they can tell the school, which will take note and not allow the student to check out that material, she said.

If members of a community are dissatisfied with their local school board’s decision, Latta said, they have the recourse of voting out board members or taking their child to different school.

Board president John Robbins said the board would be “treading on thin ice” if it were to say it had jurisdiction in such cases.

“I’m not arguing the merits of the case as far as whether that book should be on the shelves or not on the shelves,” he said. “I’m just thinking if the board decides we have jurisdiction in this case, we’ve become a book review for the state of Iowa.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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