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LGBTQ book bans have spiked nationwide. Where do Decatur school board candidates stand?

According to the American Library Association, attempts to censor books with LGBTQ and non-white characters have increased over the past two years.

DECATUR — Movements to ban books – especially those with lesbian, gay, transgender or other queer characters – are making their way into local school board races.

That includes those running for three seats on the Decatur Public School Board of Education.

“I don’t believe in banning books, but I believe in books being age-appropriate for the audience. I don’t want a third-grader reading about two men having sex together,” said candidate Mark Reynolds.

There is no evidence third graders are reading about sex in school libraries. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, age-appropriate sex ed doesn’t begin until sixth grade. And families can always opt out of the courses.

Reynolds spoke alongside the five other candidates at a recent forum by the Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations.

No other candidates expressed that view. Some said it wasn’t the board’s job to set curricula. One said books with LGBTQ characters are simply reflecting reality and are not inappropriate.

The election will take place on April 4. Early voting is underway.

Scroll to the bottom of the article to read each candidate’s response.

Librarians already provide age-appropriate books

A man reads the book "Speak Up" during a class storytime.
Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Attempts to censor books with LGBTQ characters have escalated in the past two years, according to the American Library Association. The ALA said that the attackers often falsely claim that such books are immoral.

Katie Eytchison works at the Decatur Public Library and is the parent of a first grader in Decatur Public Schools. She said school librarians already divide their books by age.

“I wouldn’t want my child to read a graphic sex scene at 7, 9 or 12 either, and I don’t think that is really what is out there for kids to access,” said Eytchison.

Eytchison offered “Peanut Goes for the Gold” by Jonathan Van Ness as an example of the kind of children’s book with LGBTQ characters she usually sees. Peanut is a hamster who loves gymnastics and uses they/them pronouns.

Eytchison said books like this can start important conversations between parents and children. She noted that many transgender adults say they knew they were different from a young age.

“Maybe there’s a book on display for Pride Month that has a little boy in a dress on the front of it and [my son] sees that and thinks, ‘I’ve always wanted to wear a dress, but I didn’t think little boys did that,’” Eytchison said.

If her son doesn’t identify with the boy in the dress, it might still help him understand a friend who does, she said.

Candidates respond: What role should schools play in teaching about Black history and LGBTQ issues?

Six candidates are running for three seats on the Decatur District No. 61 school board. Two additional candidates are listed on the ballot but have withdrawn from the race.

Here’s how the candidates responded during a Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations forum about teaching Black history and LGBTQ issues. (The question and answers begin at 38:20 in this livestream, courtesy of candidate Will Wetzel.)

  • Bill Clevenger – “We have had boards and board members in the past who thought they needed to go in everyday and sit side by side with the superintendent and run the school district, and that is simply not good governance.”
  • Misty Fronk – “If we teach children history that may be contradictory to their parents’ beliefs, their parents should be notified in writing and have to sign something saying that they are okay with us teaching their child that at that particular time.” (Editor’s note: Illinois law requires schools teach Black and Asian history.)
  • Jacob Jenkins – “School districts need to follow the law. … This is one of those questions that sometimes divides people, but right now I want to make sure our kids can read first.”
  • Mark A. Reynolds – “I don’t believe in banning books, but I believe in books being age-appropriate for the audience. I don’t want a third-grader reading about two men having sex together or two women having sex together.” (Editor’s note: There is no evidence this is happening. Sex ed starts in sixth grade and families can opt out.)
  • Will Wetzel – “The Illinois State Board of Education sets outlines for curriculum. When it comes to implementation, that goes to school administration. Our job is to hire administrators and give them the latitude to choose a curriculum based on feedback from our teaching professionals and the Illinois State Board of Education.”
  • Hannah Wolfe – “If Jim has two dads, then Jim has two dads. That’s just what reality is and it’s not something that is age-appropriate or not.”

Only one incumbent, Bill Clevenger, is in the race. Clevenger was recently appointed when another board member stepped down.

Andrew Taylor and Fred Spannaus are not running for reelection (Spannaus was recently appointed). Jason Dion, Alana Banks, Kevin Collins-Brown and Al Scheider were all elected in 2021 and are mid-term.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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