DEARBORN, Mich. (CITC) — Parents across the United States are seeking more influence over their children's education, but one Michigan mom is leading a local fight.
Stephanie Butler is demanding transparency in Dearborn Public Schools (DPS). DPS has found itself thrust into the spotlight over ongoing challenges to library books made by parents. The fight is currently centered around books many in the community deem "sexually-explicit" and "inappropriate" for young students.
However, it didn't start that way.
"It started with curriculum," Butler told The National Desk (TND). Seeing parents across the country discover aspects of their children's curriculum they deemed concerning made Butler wonder about her own kids. The wondering quickly turned into digging.
"What I found out -- what I could see as a parent was so limited compared to if I logged in and pretended I was my daughter," Butler, whose daughter is a DPS senior, said. She feels students were not learning "what they're supposed to be learning," and instead were being taught curriculum they didn't "have the mind capacity" to understand.
The assignment that concerned Butler was a poem she claims focused on religion in a negative way. She called the district to explain her concerns and set up a meeting to discuss it further. Butler says DPS officials were receptive over the phone, but that was no longer the case when face-to-face.
"By the time I went in to meet with them, it was like 'no, this is why they used it, A-B-C," Butler told TND. "Basically, 'get out of here.'"
Feeling "unheard," she decided to dig deeper.
This time, the focus was books. It was brought on by Facebook group Mary in the Library sharing titles parents found in school libraries.
"I started seeing all these posts about books," Butler said. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, there's no way -- This Book is Gay, for example -- there's no way we have this in Dearborn.'"
A search of DPS's library system confirmed to Butler that that book and other questionable titles were all available.
Butler claims DPS uses Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, as an "excuse" to keep such titles on shelves.
"Title IX does not say you need to put sex books on the shelves. That's not representing LGBTQ," Butler told TND. "No kid should be represented as some sexual creature. I don't care be it homosexual or heterosexual. It's not okay. They're kids."
After her initial findings, Butler spent the next few months bringing more to DPS school board meetings and, gradually, other parents began to catch on. A September rally held outside Henry Ford Centennial Library, the main branch of Dearborn's public library system, drew hundreds from the community.
As attention grew, DPS introduced book review criteria, complete with an opt out form for parents. An October school board meeting agenda featured discussion of the criteria, but the meeting was ultimately shut down after hundreds attended to voice their opposition.
According to Butler, DPS says a book review process was already in existence, and the one presented in October was simply an update.
"But I'm here to tell you -- a lot of us, we dug through all the old board docs, we typed in 'book review,' 'book curriculum,' we typed in every way you could," Butler told TND. "It didn't exist."
Moving forward, not only does Butler want to see transparency and parental involvement from DPS, but she wants to see it from all districts. She spoke at a Hamtramck Public Schools (HPS) board meeting Wednesday after people in the district reached out to her for help challenging library books.
Butler, who has now pulled her two elementary-aged children out of DPS, acknowledges that these efforts will take "an army." She also admits she doesn't know what the outcomes will be. However, her goal is crystal clear: speak up for young students.
"Everyone's like, 'your kid is going to be done with school in a few months, she's graduating,'" Butler told TND. "I said, 'I know, but my neighbors' kids. My colleagues' kids. My clients' kids.' ... If we don't shape the future for them, we're done."
"While we are confident in our existing review process, we value the partnership we have developed with our parents and the community," HPS Superintendent Nabil Nagi told TND. "As such, we will be introducing a new book review process that will include a committee consisting of parents, educators and administrators. The committee’s role will not be to limit student access to books, but to ensure that books available to our students are appropriate based on education guidelines.”
"The District agrees with the parents who are concerned about materials that may not be age appropriate or contain sexually explicit or graphic violence," DPS told TND. "At the same time we can't just walk into a media center and start pulling books off a shelf. There needs to be a fair process in place that protects the rights of everyone and we feel that is exactly what we have done."
DPS also says Title IX does not play a role in its book review process.