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Debate over book restrictions continue at Brandywine schools as new conservative board members make presence felt

 Brandywine schools book restrictions
Photo courtesy of Brandywine Community Schools
A shelf in the library of Brandywine Middle/Senior High School

In November, four newcomers were elected to Brandywine’s school board. The board members — Thomas Payne, Angela Seastrom, Michelanne McCombs and Elaine McKee — were all endorsed by the conservative action group We The Parents and already the group is making its presence felt in the district.

Since January, the board has formed an “Explicit Book Review Committee” that has stopped the library from buying new materials. Around 30 books have also been pulled from shelves in a move that’s become increasingly common around the country as right-wing school boards and local governments attempt to remove materials from libraries.

Conservatives, including board members in Brandywine, claim they want to restrict books that are supposedly inappropriate to children, but Debbie Mikula who’s the executive director of the Michigan Library Association said most of the books being challenged are books that deal with racism or have LGBTQ characters.

“When a book gets challenged or banned, someone is really trying to decide what’s best for everyone based on their own beliefs and feelings,” Mikula said. According to the American Library Association more than 2,500 unique book titles were challenged in 2022 compared to less than 400 in 2019.

She emphasized that removing any books from the shelves is a First Amendment issue and that public and school libraries carefully vet books they purchase and don’t carry materials that meet the legal definition of obscenity.

However, conservative board members at Brandywine have even played a 10-minute video titled “The Porn Pandemic” during one of the review committee’s meetings, insinuating that the school library contains pornography.

That video especially angered Ambrosia Neldon, a Brandywine alumnae who’s attended all of the committee meetings. She supports the policy that district had put in place last winter where parents could prevent their own children from checking out certain books since those individual decisions wouldn’t affect the rest of the student body.

“Showing the video showed they are trying to push an agenda and that is their extremely far-right, conservative notions that they want in the schools,” said Neldon.

Jasmine LaBine, another Brandywine alumnae and Neldon’s sister, added that the review committee’s most recent meeting was held at 7 p.m. on a Friday which she feels was a blatant attempt to avoid scrutiny.

Opponents to book restrictions also point out that children are exponentially more likely to exposed to actual inappropriate subjects online or through media outside of libraries.

Both LaBine and Neldon also take umbrage with other recent actions by the majority conservative board, including a recent curriculum review session in which board president Thomas Wayne brought in Jordan Adams, a consultant who’s been criticized by other school districts for fostering right-wing ideologies and having little experience in building curriculums.

“We’re very concerned that the next phase of this may involve them limiting the books that teachers are allowed to teach,” said LaBine.

Six of the seven Brandywine school board members did not respond to interview requests from WVPE. Michelanne McCombs, who sits on the explicit book review committee and was endorsed by We The Parents, declined to comment for this story.

Travis Walker also sits on the book review committee by virtue of his position as the district’s superintendent. In an interview with WVPE, Walker said he is trying to make sure all members of the school community have their concerns addressed, though he also said he wasn’t aware of any parents having issues with books in the library until the past year.

“As a public entity we do have to listen to our stakeholders and try and find what’s best for everybody. Obviously when you have such diverse groups within a school district, you’re never going to find anything that makes everyone happy,” Walker said.

In public meetings, Walker has also expressed concerns that restricting access to books will leave the district open to First Amendment lawsuits.

The next Brandywine school board meeting is Monday evening.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.