Pastor, angry citizens ask Kansas school officials to remove LGBTQ-oriented book from library shelves, effort fails

Salina Board of Education meeting
Feb. 8, 2022

After two people requested that school officials remove a memoir with themes of “sexual assault (including molestation), loss of virginity, homophobia, racism, and anti-Blackness” from two high school libraries, community members debated the book’s fate at a tense school board meeting.

Key Players

The 12th largest school district in Kansas, Salina Public Schools (SPS) serves more than 6,800 students across eight elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, and one virtual school. The district’s seven-member board of education (BOE) approves all textbooks and instructional materials available to students and permits any “citizen or parent of any students in the district” to challenge approved materials.

On Jan. 25, 2022, Chad Farber, pastor at Central Baptist Church in Salina, submitted a request to review All Boys Aren’t Blue by nonbinary author and activist George M. Johnson, which self-advertises as a “memoir-manifesto” aimed toward young readers. Farber homeschools his son and does not have any children who attend SPS schools. 

Jessica A. Henton, another parent who does not have children attending SPS, filed a second challenge against Johnson’s book on the same day.

Further Details

Per district policy, citizens or parents may write to a teacher or library media specialists to identify instructional content they find objectionable, and they may meet with the teacher or the school building’s principal to discuss complaints, the Salina Journal reported. The principal then decides whether to keep or remove challenged materials.

If the challengers are not satisfied with a decision, they can file a reconsideration form, prompting the formation of a panel chaired by the principal and including the library media specialist, two teachers, and two citizens. The panel reviews the material and decides if it should stay or go. Complainants may file subsequent appeals to a districtwide committee and the BOE, which has the final say.

According to KMUW, both Farber and Henton had not read the book, but saw excerpts from it on social media. Parent groups voiced concern about a passage in which Johnson recounts an experience of consensual gay sex in a chapter titled “Losing My Virginity Twice.”

Farber told the Salina Journal, “The content of the few pages that I read qualifies as obscene,” and said that when no other parents who had discussed the issue filed a request, he “decided to step up and do it.” 

In his request to district officials, Farber wrote that the book contained “pornographic, lude, and obscene content described in great detail,” and that “this material could be used by some to experiment w/anal sex on other students (and) groom some to be molested by predators,” KMUW reported. 

Henton took a similar position. “While, to my understanding, there is great educational content in the rest of the book, the obscene (and) descriptive text about ‘sex’ has no place on school library shelves,” she wrote in her complaint.

In an author’s note at the start of the memoir, Johnson acknowledges the book features difficult and provocative themes. Johnson explained to Time that the aim is to teach kids about sexual consent and agency, in part so they can recognize sexual abuse and combat trauma.

“As heavy as these subjects may be,” Johnson wrote, “it is necessary that they are not only told, but also read by teens who may have to navigate many of these same experiences in their own lives.” 

“These discussions at times may be a bit graphic, but nonetheless they are experiences that many reading this book will encounter or have already encountered. And I want those readers to be seen and heard in these pages,” Johnson continued.

In a Facebook message posted Feb. 7, 2022, Henton stressed she did not support “banning books or the figurative burning of them” and wrote, “It pains me that this message has been misconstrued.” She said she was looking for literature to recommend in the memoir’s place if it were to be removed and asked her followers to share their suggestions.

“What I’m more focused on is the sexually explicit content,” Henton wrote. “I support everyone’s right and free will to love whomever they want, how they want, as long as pedophilia lines are not crossed.”

Henton said she attended a meeting “with the librarian and principal, who are great people and listened very intently.” She suggested the district donate the book to a public library if it decided to remove it, or provide parents the ability to view what their student checks out if they decided to keep it.

Across the United States, parents and patrons have launched crusades against books they believe are sexually explicit or promote critical race theory. 

James Tager, research director for the free expression organization PEN America, told KMUW the number and intensity of challenges has increased dramatically since 2016, with most targeting books that deal with “the presentation of diverse viewpoints,” such as works that feature characters or have authors of color.

All the Boys Aren’t Blue was pulled from school library shelves in at least eight states in 2021, according to Time. Two nearby districts in North Kansas City, Missouri, and Goddard, Kansas, removed the memoir from circulation, only to return it after pushback from students, authors, and Free Speech advocates, KMUW reported.

Prior to publishing, Johnson and their team discussed what would happen if the book got banned. They did not think the campaign to ban the book amounted to “negative press,” because the efforts have led to “students rallying, students signing petitions, students activating their rights — which is what my book is teaching them to do.”

Chris Field, a former Salina teacher, told KMUW that complaints targeting books about race, gender, and sexuality disturbed him, arguing libraries need diverse materials to help students “find books that they can identify with and know that other people in the world are struggling with these issues.”

On Feb. 8, 2022, speaking in front of the BOE, SPS deputy superintendent Shanna Rector said the complaints against All Boys Aren’t Blue were currently at the building-level committee stage. District policy required reviewers to “examine and evaluate the materials as a whole, not on the basis of passages pulled out of context.”During her time in education, Rector said, no book challenges had moved past that point in the review process, the Salina Journal reported.


Community members on both sides of controversy speak at heated BOE meeting

At the meeting, the BOE discussed the district’s policy about challenges to instructional materials. Because of the number of people who signed up to speak at the public forum, the SPS board cut speakers’ allotted time from three minutes to one. And because the book removal qualified as an agenda item, the board largely interrupted people who began to comment on All Boys Aren’t Blue.

“We’ve never been less polarized, because this group of us are standing up for gay, bi, trans, non-binary, people of color, etc., because their lives and dignity do matter, and the changes to curriculum that are mentioned are a direct threat to those people,” one speaker said, in apparent reference to the memoir.

The BOE cut the public forum short and admitted to handpicking speakers, KSNT reported. Many members of the audience were outraged. “This isn’t a public forum. This is a sham,” one said.

More than two hours after the end of the open comment period and immediately following the board’s discussion of its policies on challenging instructional materials, a woman approached the board members onstage.

“This is porn, and it’s right in our library!” she said. “You as a parent need to take this, and read it, and get it out of our library. Get it out!”

Salina High Schools keep Johnson’s memoir

On Feb. 28, 2022, the district announced that a special committee reviewed Johnson’s memoir and recommended it should not be banned, arguing that its literary merit carried more weight than some of its scenes describing sexual content, The Kansas City Star reported. 

If challenged again, the decision would be appealed to the district-wide review committee. As of March 10, 2022, there were no further developments.