With heated opposition, St. Tammany library board keeps challenged books on shelves
MANDEVILLE – The St. Tammany Library Control Board voted to keep five challenged books on library shelves Monday night in a long meeting marred by heckling and interruption.
Four of the five books were children’s picture books, and several were previously challenged in December when the board voted to keep the materials on the public stacks. They were under review again after new complaints, called “statements of concern,” were submitted citing different reasons for their removal to a special section behind the circulation desk. The statements claimed the books violated a 2017 state law that prohibits the “sale, exhibition or distribution of material harmful to minors.”
“These books should be shelved or placed in an ‘upon request’ section of the library as the [sic] do not represent the majority views of St. Tammany Parish taxpayers,” wrote Connie Phillips, a resident of Mandeville who submitted all but one complaint on behalf of the St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, a local conservative group behind many of the challenged materials in the parish’s library system. Phillips was out of town for Monday night’s meeting and did not address the board.
In her statement of concern for one title, “I am Jazz,” a children’s picture book written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings that relates Jenning’s experience as a transgender child, Phillips wrote there are a “minuscule number of transgender people in St. Tammany Parish,” and the material is “offensive to the average adult applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable for minors.”
The majority of the public comments were against the removal of the challenged books. Many parents took to the podium to defend them as useful teaching resources.
“I have two children, two girls ages 9 and 12 … and bombshell: I am transgender,” said Andrea Romero, president of the Gulf South LGBT Chamber of Commerce during the public comment portion. “I’m here to talk about this book, ‘I am Jazz.’ This is my copy right here. This is the book I used to teach my daughters about me and my role in this world and my coming out. I strongly suggest keeping this book accessible to all the children and adults who decide they simply need to read it.”
Each of the four children’s books under review contained LGBTQ+ themes or characters. One title, “My Rainbow” written by Trinity Neal and her mother DeShanna Neal, also includes discussions of race and mental disability. The book tells the true story about a time when DeShanna made a rainbow wig for their transgender, autistic daughter, Trinity, to make her feel more confident.
In her statement of concern, Phillips wrote that the book contained “mature subject matter that does not comport with the value systems of the citizens of St. Tammany Parish,” and that there should be “no effort to ‘normalize’ this confuse [sic] children about their sexuality.”
Author DeShanna Neal, recently elected as Delaware’s first non-binary state representative, said they wrote the book in the “spirit of understanding.”
“If you have a child who has autism-specific sensory needs this book is for you,” Neal told the Illuminator. “And if you’re a little Black girl who’s been told all her life that her kinky curly hair is unattractive, she can learn to love her hair and realize all hair is good hair and how to love it. This book is for all children.”
The one adult title that was challenged was Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” the Nobel-prize winning author’s first novel that explores her experiences with racism in America. The book is classified as adult fiction and is shelved alongside other adult titles away from children’s picture books. Fran Smith of Slidell submitted a complaint, requesting the book published in 1970 be completely taken out of the libraries — not just moved to an “upon request” section.
“It’s sick,” Smith wrote. “Children do not have to be exposed to this piece of garbage. What good does it do them to read about such things? You people are fowl [sic] and I wonder what your mother would have said if you brought this book home to read.”
At the board meeting, St. Tammany Library Director Kelly LaRocca read from her response letter to Smith.
“The author was a Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, and this book is part of the canon of American Literature,” LaRocca said. “The library recognized the mature subject matter and content of this book and, upon purchase, placed it into the adult fiction collection. The sexual material in the book is not erotic but informs us about the characters and their development. The book is realistic for its setting.”
Ultimately, the board found that none of the challenged books met the criteria to be considered as harmful to minors and voted to keep them on library shelves. The board also voted to extend its time to read and review the remaining challenged books that will be discussed at future meetings.
As of December, 79 titles at St. Tammany libraries had been challenged. There are currently 152 books under review.
The board also voted to approve LaRocca’s annual evaluation as library director, which included an increase in her salary.
The public comment portions of the meeting grew tense at times, with audience members applauding or shouting down speakers. One instance required law enforcement officers to intervene.
In her prepared statement, MJ Castillo of Abita Springs discussed her experiences being bullied as a young LGBTQ+ person growing up in Louisiana. Castillo referenced the mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville earlier Monday that left six people dead, including three young children. Police killed the shooter, 28-year-old Nashville native Audrey Elizabeth Hale.
“It’s absolutely shocking to me that we sit here talking about books and how we need to protect children against books,” Castillo said, “when once again today, for the 89th time this year, three children died, 9 years old, at the hands of an angry individual with two assault rifles and a handgun, who walked into an elementary school and killed them.”
This statement prompted David Cougle, an attorney with the Accountability Project sitting in the audience to ask, “Who was the shooter?”
Castillo turned around and responded, “So, once again, we’ll talk about bullying, right? Because I know you’re trying to point out that they’re transgender, but again, maybe we should get the heckling out of here.”
The two went back and forth with Cougle continuing to interrupt. At one point, Castillo confronted Cougle, saying, “Come on, let’s go. Matter of fact, let’s go to the parking lot.”
The audience started to join in, prompting board president Rebecca Taylor to bang her gavel and bring order. A deputy sheriff removed Cougle from the meeting, and Castillo voluntarily left.
Tense scene at the St. Tammany Library Control Board meeting as members are kicked out after heated exchanges during public comment. The board is meeting to vote on whether or not to remove books from library shelves. @IlluminatorLA pic.twitter.com/AibnQiYqB9
— Drew Hawkins (@WAdrewhawkins) March 28, 2023
Some in the audience also singled out specific board members in their public comments.
During the board discussion period of the review of “I am Jazz,” St. Tammany Parish Council Chairman Jake Airey, also a library board member, proposed creating a separate “parenting” section for similar children’s titles with LGBTQ+ themes and characters. In a split vote of 2-2, the proposal failed in favor of keeping the book housed in its current location on the shelves.
Airey’s proposal drew the ire of many attendees, with some saying that creating separate sections for books imply that there’s something wrong or inappropriate with the content of the book.
“You seem quite annoyed that a lot of the board members are not agreeing with you,” St. Tammany resident Cynthia Weatherly told Airey. “I’m pretty sure you have no training in library science, no offense to you. But you have no training and they continue to give you solid evidence and recommendations on where these books belong, appropriate placement for these books.”
A frustrated Airey looked away from Weatherly and scrolled on his phone as she continued to address him. Weatherly noticed and grew increasingly frustrated, saying, “Sir, please listen and pay attention.” Airey requested the board president condemn personal attacks on specific board members.
Standing in the parking lot for the remainder of the meeting, Cougle said the Accountability Project plans to continue to challenge books and pressure the library board. One of the group’s goals is to establish a “community advisory board” composed of local residents that would hold purchasing power over acquisitions, essentially controlling what books parish libraries can and cannot purchase for the stacks.
“Long term would be basically where the financial priorities of the library would reflect the majority of the parish,” Cougle said. “The reason why this issue isn’t going away is because you have an unelected board making decisions, and people don’t have a say. And you have elected officials saying, ‘We can’t control them, because once they’re appointed we can’t touch them.’ So I think long-term like, my interest is in protecting kids.”
This story was updated to include the current number of books under review.