by Amy Barrett
You may have seen articles about hundreds of books being banned in Florida and photos of empty classroom bookshelves in Manatee County. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claims that books are being removed from school libraries because they are “pornographic, violent, or inappropriate.” In reality, dozens of books are being banned because they touch on LGBTQ+ themes, include protagonists of color, portray the ugliness of racism, or even discuss climate change. Closer to home, books with LGBTQ+ themes have been challenged in Central Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
You might think this couldn’t happen here in New Jersey, where we have a Democratic governor and state legislature. Unfortunately, it is already happening here. Members of extremist groups such as Moms for Liberty are filing complaints against books and school librarians, railing against sex education curriculum and equity in education policies at school board meetings. They’re running for board of education seats – and winning since so few people actually follow school board candidates.
I am a member of the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Intellectual Freedom Fighters (more about us later). My family has lived in the North Hunterdon-Voorhees area for 35 years, and the events in that district is first of a series focusing on similar activities in our area schools.
In September 2021, during Banned Books Week, a parent complained at a board of education about two LGBTQ+ themed books in the North Hunterdon High School library: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. She also mentioned North Hunterdon librarian Martha Hickson by name, accusing her and
the board members of “grooming our kids” and promoting “child pornography.” Soon complaints were made against three additional LGBTQ+ themed books.
Martha Hickson was harassed with hate-filled emails and attempts to file criminal charges against her with the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s office and local police department. Hickson’s doctor put her on medical leave due to stress-induced physical and emotional issues. Within a few weeks, however, she returned – reenergized with a mission to save the books and support the students who needed them.
Many members of the North Hunterdon-Voorhees community—students, alumni, parents, friendly colleagues—supported Hickson and spoke at board meetings in favor of keeping the books. They revived a community group called the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Intellectual Freedom Fighters (NHVIFF), which had been formed two years earlier, when the superintendent tried to remove Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from the school libraries. This time, school policy required that a committee be appointed to review the challenged books. The committee recommended keeping four of the five books, without providing much detail on why the fifth book, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, should be removed. Students spoke out in defense of this book, and in January 2022, a board majority voted to keep all five books.
For her efforts in preventing censorship, supporting librarians under attack by censors, and raising public awareness of book banning, Martha Hickson was awarded the American Library Association’s Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Judith Krug Outstanding Librarian
In 2021, LGBTQ+ students spoke about how they felt marginalized by book-banning efforts at North Hunterdon. In 2023, black students told their stories of experiencing racism at the school. Several videos, showing students at North using racial slurs, were circulated among the student body. During the almost hour-long public comments segment of the February 28 board of education meeting, a young black man who recently graduated from North described his wrestling teammates parading around the locker room in towels wrapped as KKK hoods after competing against an all-black team. A young woman was reduced to tears as she repeated some of the names she has been called at school. All speakers agreed that the school’s letter to parents about one video and unspecified disciplinary action were not enough. The board promised to form a committee of community stakeholders, including students, to make recommendations on how to change the culture.
2022 BOE Election
Defeat of the North Hunterdon-Voorhees book-banning attempt was not the end of the story. Some of the same people (or their spouses) who spoke in support of banning books ran for the North Hunterdon-Voorhees board of education in November 2022. Their official “Education with Purpose” platform was “transparency” between school and
parents, “parental rights,” and the “safety” of all children, but their comments on Facebook pages such as NJ Fresh-Faced Schools refer to critically acclaimed LGBTQ+ themed books as “pedophilia” and “filth.” Their Facebook comments were more concerned with curriculum standards that “discriminate against whites” than with actual racism directed toward black students at school, and their concern for “parental rights” was only for the rights of parents who shared their extremist views.
Two of these candidates were defeated, but a third, Nicole Gallo (representing Lebanon Township and High Bridge), was elected to the North Hunterdon-Voorhees board. Gallo, who wore a Mom’s for Liberty t-shirt to one board meeting before she was elected, spoke at a board meeting last summer where she called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum “ racist ” because it “excludes white males.” Based on last year’s votes on book banning, Gallo has some allies on the 12-person board, though not a majority.
As voters, we need to stay vigilant and involved. We need to know who is running for our local and regional boards of education. North Hunterdon-Voorhees area residents need to be informed voters when four seats (Califon/Tewksbury, Clinton Town/Franklin Township/Glen Gardner, and two seats representing Clinton Township./Lebanon Borough) come up for election in November 2023.
What Can I Do?
If you live or work or attended school in Hunterdon County and care about these issues, what can you do?
- Attend board meetings regularly. A once-a-month meeting is not a major time
- Speak at board meetings. Speak about your commitment to racial justice or soli–
darity with LGBTQ+ students or support for students’ right to read. Or just thank
the board members (if the majority are not extremists) for their continuing com–
mitment to these issues. You can be brief (20 seconds to 3 minutes), and you
can read something you wrote in advance if you aren’t comfortable with extempo–
- Be aware of who is representing your town on the board and their position on
these issues. BOE elections are important, not just an afterthought at the bottom
of the ballot. Be skeptical of “parents rights,” “students first,” and “transparency”
rhetoric. Vote knowledgeably. Contact groups such as North Hunterdon
Voorhees Intellectual Freedom Fighters, Action Together New Jersey, or even
the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee for candidate recommendations
(though not all moderate candidates will affiliate as Democrats).
- Run for the board of education in your town or regional high school district if
there is an open seat or if the incumbent has values different from your own.