COVINGTON — When Gavin Downing, the librarian at Cedar Heights Middle School in Covington, added “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)” to the school’s collection in the fall, he thought the young adult novel might at some point provoke a complaint. Described by Kirkus Reviews as “a sex-positive and thoughtful romp with humor and heart,” the book had just been targeted for removal from a public library in Texas.

But Downing was determined to grow his library’s LGBTQ+ section, and “Jack of Hearts,” featuring a gay 17-year-old sex columnist, had received critical praise, he said.

Then one day in December, Cedar Heights Principal Erika Hanson walked into the school library carrying the book, which she soon decided to remove, citing “sex, profanity and obscenity not appropriate” for middle school students. Since then, the Kent School District school has been swept into a wider conversation amid a major surge in book banning across the country.

“I’m a great believer in books and libraries,” Michelle Bettinger, a Kent School Board member, said during a meeting last week. “So I just want to make sure, in this matter, we’re absolutely following our policy.”

Downing says Hanson breached district regulations and sent the wrong message to LGBTQ+ students by pulling “Jack of Hearts” and two other books with LGBTQ+ themes — including “If I Was Your Girl,” a book about a trans student — without following procedure. He says Hanson also discounted his expertise and restricted his job by instructing him to obtain approval before all subsequent book orders.

“I’m saddened,” Downing said in a recent interview. “I just want to be able to run my library for my students.”

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The district has backed Hanson, who deferred to the district when asked for an interview. Her steps were within the district’s policies, according to a spokesperson who said the matter began when a student came to the principal with concerns about “Jack of Hearts.”

“The principal determined that the amount and graphic nature of the sexual content and exposure to drugs and alcohol outweighed any literary merit” for students at Cedar Heights, which serves seventh and eighth graders ages 12 to 14, spokesperson Melissa Laramie said in an email.

But the controversy has now bubbled further, leading to dueling comments at the School Board’s Jan. 26 meeting, intense attention on social media and even mini-protests outside the district’s headquarters.

Growing up, “I didn’t have access to books that had LGBTQ themes. … I felt like I didn’t exist,” School Board member Joe Bento, a teacher who chairs the Washington chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said during the meeting. “I’m always going to support students … having access to choose to read something.”

The national scene has supercharged the conversation here. In some areas, conservative organizations are targeting books that discuss racial injustice and LBGTQ+ issues, and a Tennessee school district last month removed “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about Holocaust survivors, from an eighth grade curriculum based on language and a drawing of a nude character.

Book ban efforts spread across the U.S.

The American Library Association received 330 reports of challenges from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1 — a serious acceleration compared with 307 in all of 2019. In December, a school district in Kitsap County reversed the removal of a memoir called “Gender Queer” from a high school library.

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Seattle resident Sara Strite learned about the Cedar Heights situation on Facebook, where reports about book bans elsewhere have put her on “a nonstop rampage,” she said. She put together the protests in Kent this week because, “This is spitting distance from me,” Strite said.

What happened

This is Downing’s fourth year at Cedar Heights, a diverse school with, according to the librarian, a lot of openly LGBTQ+ students. During “Banned Books Week” each September, Downing sets up a “very popular” display of books banned in the past, he said.

“I never had a complaint before,” he said.

That changed with “Jack of Hearts.” Initially, Downing asked Hanson to read the entire book, arguing its frank discussions of sex serve a purpose. She agreed but also asked him to bring other “sexually explicit books” from the library to a meeting on Dec. 10, according to an emailed recap Hanson sent Downing on Jan. 6.

The librarian brought some books challenged elsewhere in the past, including the Bible and a book on human biology. Not satisfied, Hanson directed Downing to detail his vetting process and provide a list of books in the library with sexually explicit material.

In “Jack of Hearts,” the principal wrote in her email to Downing, there are detailed references to various sexual acts and to “alcohol, drugs and partying.” She also described the book as including “a lack of healthy relationship dynamics” and an “over-sexualization of the LGBTQ community.”

Hanson noted that “Jack of Hearts” had been “rated” for ages 14 and up, and said she had decided to remove the book from the Cedar Heights library.

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At the Dec. 10 meeting, the principal brought a second book that she said had been challenged (by the same student, according to the district) and that she was holding for review: “If I Was Your Girl,” which Kirkus Reviews describes as “a sweet, believable romance.”

In her Jan. 6 email, Hanson wrote that all sexually explicit books “not previously approved by the district,” would be “considered under review.” The district hasn’t said why “If I Was Your Girl” has been challenged, other than for “sexually explicit content.”

In an emailed reply, Downing argued that books aren’t officially rated as appropriate for particular ages, but rather are suggested for approximate reading levels and interest. Some students read above or below grade level, he said, also drawing a distinction between books students must read for class and library books they can select or not.

Though “Jack of Hearts” does address mature topics, some Cedar Heights students may be dealing with those, Downing said. The protagonist’s advice columns empower students having sex or not having sex, and are “medically accurate, stressing the importance of safer sex practices and consent,” Downing added, citing sexual education standards approved by Washington voters in 2020.

Pointing to a definition in state law, Downing said no books in his library qualified as sexually explicit.

“I of course recognized that [“Jack of Hearts”] was not universally appropriate,” Downing wrote. “But my responsibility again is to select for all students.”

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When some additional books that Downing ordered were delivered to the library in mid-January, he noticed that a third book with LGBTQ+ themes, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” was missing from the box, he said. Someone left the memoir about a queer kid on his desk last week, he said.

Public views

The Cedar Heights controversy dominated the written public comments read aloud by a staffer at the School Board’s Jan. 26 meeting.

A number backed Hanson.

“I have taken it upon myself to read the book and am appalled this was made available,” one commenter wrote, arguing the district “has a duty to censor … to not include pornography.”

A former Cedar Heights employee wrote she saw Hanson demonstrate support and respect for LGBTQ+ students. Yet another commenter, who described herself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, wrote that “Jack of Hearts” approaches “an area that’s offensive and inappropriate as a representation” of LGBTQ+ people.

“As a middle school student … had I read that book and been told it was to educate me about my future, I would have chosen to remain in the closet,” she wrote.

Other commenters, however, expressed unease about book removals and LGBTQ+ material being pulled.

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“Banning and removing books,” especially unilaterally, “is a violation of our intellectual freedom,” wrote a commenter who described herself as a librarian and educator.

A commenter who described himself as a teacher and parent said district survey data has indicated that LGBTQ+ students are yearning for inclusion. Whether the principal intentionally targeted LBGTQ+ books or not, the optics are bad, he wrote.

Another commenter wrote, “Content in books may make us uncomfortable, as adults, and yet still be appropriate” for some students … “Sometimes when we feel discomfort, that’s a sign there’s an opportunity for growth.”

The Cedar Heights controversy wasn’t on the agenda, but Bento shared his thoughts. To hear commenters call certain LGBTQ+ books obscene, pornographic and inappropriate “really hurt my heart.”

“Books aren’t meant to be banned,” Bento said, adding, “I struggle with talking to students and saying we care about them as a district when people in the district are saying horrendous things about them.”

Policies, takeaways

Both sides have cited the district’s policies.

Hanson pointed to its policy on library materials, which says selections “shall be the responsibility of the librarian with … approval by the principal.” The district says Hanson adhered to its policy on challenges, which says the principal can in certain cases issue a decision.

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Downing notes that the district’s challenge policy was designed for instructional materials, rather than library materials, which have a higher legal bar for removal. Also, the policy requires that the materials remain in use until a decision is reached. That didn’t happen at Cedar Heights, at least initially, Downing says. The books are now back on the shelves, according to the district.

Lastly, the policy requires a meeting with both parties, a written complaint and a written staff response, using district forms; Downing has yet to see evidence of those steps, he says.

The policy says a decision by a principal can be appealed to the district’s Instructional Materials Committee and then the School Board. Both “Jack of Hearts” and “If I Was Your Girl” are under appeal, according to the district.

The district recently published a blog post about the matter but has not shared any formal complaints, responses or decisions.

“As a district our foremost concern is for the student at the heart of the matter, a student we are so proud of for using their voice to be an agent of their own educational experience,” Israel Vela, the district’s interim superintendent, said in the blog post.

“Now we follow the process … to make the decision that is in the best interest of all of our students,” Vela wrote.

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Downing’s clash with Hanson has stressed the librarian, despite support from his union, he said. The principal, meanwhile, has come under fire on social media, especially since the Book Riot blog covered the matter.

Strite, the protest organizer from Seattle, said she mostly got friendly honks and waves at the district’s headquarters this week.

There are lessons from Cedar Heights, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

First, every school district should have a detailed development policy for library collections, she said. The district was actually working on that before the controversy, according to Downing.

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Second, Caldwell-Stone said, challenge policies “should provide transparency, accountability and invite” a community conversation. Decisions about pulling books should always be made by a group, partly to prevent “silent censorship” in which a book is removed under the radar, she said.

Middle school readers are tricky, she said, because maturity levels vary greatly, but districts should lean toward including library books, she added.

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The Cedar Heights matter may be different than some other book removals, Caldwell-Stone said, mentioning “Maus” and challenges against “And Tango Makes Three,” a true-story picture book about male penguins that raise a chick together.

Still, the Kent School District controversy jibes with the broader pattern in that books with LGBTQ+ themes are at issue, Caldwell-Stone said.

“We’re vigilant right now around the country,” said John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, an advocacy organization that’s been tracking the trend. “What makes [the Cedar Heights situation] particularly concerning for us is the category of books.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.