The Wisconsin GOP’s search for ‘inappropriate’ books in school districts
How a list triggered searches for books on LGBTQ, gender identity, and social justice topics across Republican districts
Over the past few months, some Wisconsin Republican legislators have been scouring school libraries in their districts for potentially “inappropriate” books. The Legislature won’t return to session until next year. In the meantime, GOP lawmakers appear to be setting the stage for debates around what books should be restricted, and whether staff should be held accountable for providing them to students.
Emails sent and received by elected officials discussing the endeavor were obtained by Wisconsin Examiner through open records requests. For Rep. Jesse James (R-Altoona), it began after his office received a list of books by more than 50 authors sent by a concerned parent. The parent did not respond to an email from Wisconsin Examiner seeking comment.
However, in her emails to James, she indicates that she was motivated to compile the list and reach out after learning about a book she felt was inappropriately available in her daughter’s classroom. The list itself contained books which she feared may also be available in schools. Many of the books on the list cover LGBTQ topics and characters, as well as issues of gender identity or sexuality. Among the titles on the list are “Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love and Life for Girls” and “Two Boys Kissing,” a young adult novel from 2013 about two teenage boys who try breaking a Guinness World Record by kissing for 32 hours straight. Another title on the list is “It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity”, which introduces readers to the concept of gender identity.
Other books on the list focus on stories of ethnic identity, the burden of overcoming racial stereotypes and systemic inequality. These include “I Am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” with characters who grapple with the expectations and discrimination associated with their ethnic identities. There are also books that deal with issues of social justice and police misconduct, such as “Sometimes People March” and “The Hate You Give.”
Here is the list of books sent Rep. Jesse James’ office and passed by James to schools in his district:ECASD-Library Books Concern (1)
Removing exemptions from classroom libraries
On December 17, the concerned parent who contacted James’ office emailed him images from the book “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens.” She included pictures of pages which explained different forms of sexual contact such as oral sex and “touching and rubbing.” Illustrations accompanied some of the text, in one case a comic-style illustration of two women sitting side by side in a bed together. Parts of the book also discussed topics including navigating online dating and avoiding Sexual Transmitted Infections.
This particular book was also the subject of a July 2021 letter issued to the Elmbrook School District by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The 14-page document stated that parents with children in Elmbrook, a school district in Waukesha County, had learned that books with explicit images were available to students in grades K-12, including to children as young as third graders. Some of the concerned parents mentioned in WILL’s letter had children as old as 16. The letter from WILL reproduced pages from “The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens.” The concerned parent who contacted James shared the letter from WILL and some of the same pages from the book that were reproduced in WILL’s letter.
“I did meet with [the] principal today,” the concerned parent wrote to James, regarding the book she learned was in her own daughter’s classroom. “He didn’t defend the book, he said he didn’t know it was in the school, told me he would get it out of the classroom and is going to investigate the book and get back to me before break. He did say it had a library tag on it. I also attached the list of other books I know are in our district that are pornographic in nature.” She cited a Wisconsin statute covering “exposing a child to harmful material or harmful descriptions or narrations.” She added in her email to James, “There is the carve-out for schools and libraries exempting them from enforcement under these statutes. Nice eh?”
The concerned parent’s email also mentioned the WILL letterFwd WI Statutes on ' Exposing a child to harmful material or harmful descriptions or narrations '
Wisconsin statutes such 948.11 state that providing “harmful material” to a minor could constitute a Class E felony. “Harmful materials” are defined in the statute as including images or descriptions of sexual excitement, sadmasochistic abuse, physical torture, nudity and brutality. Material that fits the definition “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, scientific, or educational value for children, when taken as whole.” Libraries and educational institutions, however, are protected from penalties since they “carry out the essential purpose” of making available all manner of books, recordings, and reference materials to the public.
Not all of the books included on the list sent to James’ office focused on LGBTQ awareness or sex education. For parents organizing around this issue, raising concerns about sexually explicit content is a main focus. But there are other concerns as well. A March 9 email the concerned parent sent to James’ office further clarified why she felt certain books were a problem.
“This is a good start but here’s where I’m seeing the biggest issue…staff classroom libraries,” she wrote in an email. “I’m not sure how we would regulate them. The book [REDACTED] found in her classroom, when the teacher was addressed she stated the book was recommended by a continuing education class she took so she bought it. The principal had no idea it was in the classroom and I certainly can’t expect him to know what every staff member brings into their personal libraries. I have a ton of examples of not only sexual books but books teaching our kids to hate cops and hate their white skin in the classrooms at our elementary schools. How do we stop educators from bringing these into the classrooms?” She added that “we need to get that language changed which excludes them from prosecution.”
James’ office replied to the parent the following evening. “AGREED,” the email reply stated. “We are working on drafting legislation in my office to address this issue. I am supposed to be meeting with parents from Cadott as well. They have these books in the schools there. I am meeting with Altoona in the morning to discuss this as well.”
An email exchange between the concerned parent and Rep. James:RE Reminder Short Deadline Co-Sponsorship of LRB-6117 1 relating to pupil or minor access to harmful material in public libraries and publi
Ending the email with the initials “JJ,” James included in the message a co-sponsorship memo for LRB-6117, which focuses on preventing children from “being exposed to sexually explicit and psychologically damaging material through library databases via innocent book searches and school curricula.”
The memo states that the bill “is designed to protect children from unwanted harmful content that parents don’t want them viewing.” It lays out three strategies, any or all of which all public libraries, charter schools or school boards would be required to employ. They include: Equipping computers with software that would limit students’ ability to access harmful material; purchasing internet service from a provider that provides filters and/or developing and implementing a policy that establishes measures to prevent minors from accessing such material. If harmful material is viewed by a student, then the bill would also require schools to provide parents with a curriculum outline and summary of instructional materials that contain the material. Additionally, all instruction and curriculum must be made available to parents upon request under the bill. It also allows parents to opt students out of instruction by providing a written request.
While James said his office is involved in the legislation, the co-sponsorship memo came from the office of Rep. Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc). Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), and Sen. Andre Jaque (R-DePere) are also listed on the memo. Jaque introduced the measure as SB-1102 in the Committee on Human Services, Children and Families, on March 15 where it failed to pass. James is listed as a co-sponsor on SB-1102 along with Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha), Rep. David Murphy (R-Greenville), and Rep. Gae Magnafici (R-Dresser).
District-wide searches for certain books
By March, James had begun approaching schools in his district to determine whether any of the books on his constituent’s list were available to students. In an email sent on March 11 James stated that his office “has received numerous contacts from concerned parents over possible inappropriate reading material available to students through their libraries. Attached to this email is a list of books that have raised concern based on the graphic or explicit content they contain.” In the email James wrote that he “would like to know if the libraries in your schools/school districts have these books available to students to check out, and if so, which grade levels have access to these books.”
The list sent to the schools by James’ office was an unaltered copy of the one his constituent had provided. James confirmed as much to Wisconsin Examiner. “I believe we had communication with every single school district in the 68th Assembly,” James told the Examiner. He added that, “I believe everybody got back to us. And most of them referred to their online libraries. And then our staff had to do some due diligence to determine what was in there.” James’ emails inquiring about books were handled as open records requests by the school districts. Some returned the list after highlighting books they had located. Some included their policies for checking out or accessing content intended only for older students.
A response from a school district to Rep. James’ office:Casola-Hunt (Rep. Jesse James) 4-4-22 Ltr with Attachments (1)
On March 14, James followed up with the parent who first contacted him to confirm that he had begun reaching out to school districts. “YAAAAAASSSSS!!!!!!,” she responded, adding that James should meet another “warrior parent” she’s familiar with. “I sent you the pics of the one that teaches our kids to hate cops on FB messenger and the one that tells them to hate their white skin.”
When asked about these emails, James walked back from the tone in the parent’s messages. “I did not review any books regarding hating cops, or any kind of racism,” said James, “it was more about addressing the pornographic and illicit images and narrations.” He added that the effort to seek out certain books was geared towards elementary school ages. While some of the books seemed framed more around sex education, James recalled one book which “actually had illustrations of male-on-male oral sex, and sexual laying in bed.” James added that he did not research every single book on the list and could not confirm whether this book was also on the list.
One of two emails the concerned parent sent James regarding books with racial or social justice topics:Re Open Records Request- Library Books (Maggie)
“I’ve had cases where I’ve had to take people into custody for this, for exposing a child to harmful material,” said James, who served as police and fire chief of Altoona. “And I think this meets the same type of criteria. I mean, I don’t know if it would be enough probable cause for an arrest. I haven’t had that discussion with any district attorneys. But that gives me an idea, I should probably discuss that with the district attorney to see if that statutorily would meet probable cause for an arrest.”
Nevertheless James stressed, “that’s not the whole intent here. I think the intent is `let’s protect our young children’s eyes.’” James also said it isn’t the legislation’s intention to penalize school or library staff for providing certain books,” despite seemingly agreeing with that suggestion during a March 2022 email exchange with the concerned parent who sent the list.
“My goal with this is specifically to look at 948.11, the definitions of what is inappropriate material, as well as what materials are in our schools like the explicit illustrations and narrations that are provided in some of these books,” James explained. “That’s my whole intent. It has nothing to do with the schools, I never bashed any school or their administration. My goal, as a legislator, is to gather the information, go through it, and to see what I can do as a legislator to address it through state statute. I mean, that’s what our roles are.”
He stressed that, “this is strictly regarding pornographic explicit illustrations and narrations that are available because we have defiantly become a sexualized society. And there doesn’t go a day where you don’t see something on the news where this person is arrested for sexual assault of a child, or this person is arrested for child pornography, or this person is arrested for familial incest. You know, that’s very concerning to me and I think we do have an obligation as a society to protect the young children.”
While one concerned parent’s list was used as a guide for the book search, she wasn’t the only one emailing James’ office. Nor was James the only legislator scouting his district for what could be in the library. On March 28, a research assistant from Rep. Allen’s office reached out to Joseph Como Jr., president of the Waukesha school board asking for “feedback on a school issue that a constituent has raised with us.”
Note from the office of Rep. Scott Allen to Waukesha’s school superintendent:Extracted pages from Re Feedback on School Libraries
Mirroring points raised in the emails to James, the message from Allen’s office noted that public elementary schools are exempt from penalties for distributing “obscene material” to a minor. “The concern that a constituent raised is that there is no need for an elementary school library to be exempt as there should be no reason for an elementary school library having in its possession any material that could be considered ‘obscene.’ This leaves a potential loophole for children to be exposed to obscene material and for there to be no legal avenue for addressing that.” The email offered Como an opportunity to provide feedback on that issue to Allen, calling it “part of this exploratory process.”
Despite Allen approaching the Waukesha school board in the same month that James reached out to schools in his own district, the representatives say they didn’t communicate with each other. Allen’s office stated that it was not provided with a list of books nor did it “reach out to any school districts or libraries to see if certain materials were provided to students.” James said that his own efforts to seek out books in his district were not related to SB-1102 or LRB-6117. James added that his office did not share the list of books with other legislators. “Not to my knowledge,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “I didn’t share it with anybody. I just took it as far as specific to the 68th Assembly district.”
In a response to Wisconsin Examiner, Allen’s office added that “there was no outcome” following his meeting with Como. “The meeting was about gathering research.” Allen added that it was one of his own constituents who reached out, and that his office did not coordinate with any other of SB-1102’s co-sponsors or authors. Allen said that, “as a representative, it is my duty to take the time to understand the nature of the concerns of constituents and the nature of the current law.” While James is looking at Wisconsin statute 948.11, Allen pointed to Wisconsin statute 944.21 (5) as laying out penalties regarding exposing minors to obscene materials. Those range from Class A forfeiture, a Class A misdemeanor, or a Class H felony depending on the violation.
Sortwell told Wisconsin Examiner that his office worked with Rep. Tittl on an Assembly version of SB-1102 “per a constituent concerned with the Manitowoc Public Library System.” “If a teacher knowingly shows inappropriate sexually explicit materials to the class, then there should be disciplinary action from the school towards that teacher,” said Sortwell. His office did not answer specific questions including whether it received a list of specific books.
Tittl’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. His emails show that he was in contact with constituents regarding legislative options for addressing “erotica and pornography” in school libraries, and exemptions of education institutions from state statutes. Magnafici’s office stated it did not have records responsive to Wisconsin Examiner’s request. Jacque’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
What happens when books are banned?
It’s widely understood that educational materials given to students at school should be appropriate to their age group. As James explained in one of his emails regarding the list, “I find reading some of these books are not appropriate for our children to be exposed to. We just can’t have carte blanche for all grades. We have to protect our children. I believe in the birds and the bees, but some of the content in my opinion has crossed the line.”
But the district-wide book searches weren’t exclusively for materials with sexual topics. Valeria Cerda, who started La Revo Books in Milwaukee with her sister Barbara, reviewed the list of works distributed by James’ office. The sisters, daughters of Milwaukee’s South Side, come from a working-class, immigrant background. This cultural influence shapes La Revo Books, with its wide selection of new and used books by and for Black, indigenous, and people of color with a particular focus on Latin American culture. “La Revo,” Cerda explained, “is short for ‘The Revolution.’”
“It just seems like they’re afraid of difficult conversations,” Cerda told Wisconsin Examiner. “That’s what it seems like.” It’s a recurring theme Cerda has noticed in the conversations about what books shouldn’t be allowed in schools, critical race theory, and other debates about what minors should be allowed to learn. Cerda added, “What’s harmful is also very relative. I think if a book about LGBTQ issues or with identity is considered harmful to you, then maybe you should read, you know? I think it’s like re-establishing their biases.”
Cerda argues that reading about identity, whether cultural, sexual or gender-based, “can cause an internal revolution, and it does change the way people see themselves and how they relate to the world.” Learning that efforts have been underway in parts of the state to restrict books on those issues, and even prosecute people over it, is a frightening thought for Cerda. “It seems like it’s more about an ability to control, rather than the books themselves.” Some of the books on the list are works La Revo Books has carried.
“’I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’ has actually been one of our best sellers when it first came out,” said Cerda. “And it’s still very popular.” Other books on the list, like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” and LGBTQ-related books have also been part of the inventory at La Revo. “Seeing books that we definitely would stock on this list is like, very threatening and it’s sad and scary at the same time,” Cerda told Wisconsin Examiner. For Cerda, the efforts remind her of the history of conquest of indigenous peoples, which included the destruction of accumulated knowledge and records. “It’s really an act of violence to try to erase stories — and written stories,” emphasized Cerda.
Aaron Eick, an educator from Racine and a Voces de la Frontera board member, sees restricting books as part of a general movement toward a more repressive atmosphere in schools. Eick, who teaches Latin American history and African American history, says, “It’s hard for a teacher like me, who I often bring my own resources to class because it’s just easier.”
“And I have, for the last two years because of lawsuits, had to turn in my curriculum to the central office in order to be looked at by [WILL],” he adds.
“It’s an attack on the children and the families, their histories,” Eick says of what he calls “the effort to try to rewind time to where white males can dominate.” Both Eick and Cera say that efforts to restrict certain books in schools will make children in marginalized groups feel alienated, alone, and unwanted.
If young children have questions about the way they feel, their bodies or their history, addressing the heavy prevalence of LGBTQ books on the list, James said, “the children need to have discussions with their parents, and not the teachers.”
“If I was a teacher and a child came up to me and asked that, I don’t even know how I would answer that question,” he added. “But I would definitely want to have a conversation with the child’s parents. … I think there needs to be that dialogue and communication with the parents. And I think that’s something that we’re missing today. We’ve lost this element of just open communication and being able to share between the teacher and the parent, for the best interests of the child. Whether that child has questions about the LGBTQ, or their sexual desires and all that stuff, this is stuff we can jointly look at and take care of for the child’s sake. That’s what it comes down to.”
While James stressed that there was no intention to target specific schools or groups like LGBTQ people, he said, “This is a divisive topic. People are going to live how they feel they need to live. It’s not my job or duty to tell people how to live. It’s called free will, everybody has that individual choice in their life. Legislatively, I’m not looking to make laws to make it more difficult to educate this, or tell teachers what they have to do. That’s not my role. My role is to look at statutory language, because for me it is about fighting for our future and looking out for the interests of our children.”
“The move to ban books is a blatant attack on the freedom of expression, which protects students’ rights to read, learn and share ideas free from viewpoint-based censorship,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin told the Examiner in a statement. “These bans in schools are misguided attempts to try to suppress that right. Book bans specifically aim to remove books that are by and about communities of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups. Censoring books on this basis is discriminatory and antithetical to our First Amendment rights.”
The debate is bound to heat up when the legislative session begins early next year.
Update: This story was updated on June 1 to remove the name of a student at the request of the parent
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