Inclusion of book about a transgender girl in popular reading competition prompts two Oregon districts to pull out

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Students in the St. Helens School District practice for an Oregon Battle of the Books competition during the 2017-18 competition season. Participation in the OBOB competitions is voluntary and students often split up reading assignments with their teammates.As many schools prepare for the next Oregon Battle of the Books competition kicking off in fall, one book on the reading list for grades three to five about a transgender student has already sparked controversy in some school districts.

In Columbia County, however, school district officials for the most part are standing behind the idea that participation in the competition is voluntary, and will allow students and schools to take part in the extracurricular activity.

In May, the Hermiston and Cascade school districts opted to not participate in the reading competition due to the inclusion of the book by Alex Gino, "George," which is about a transgender student, according to several media reports.

"George" tells the story of a 10-year transgender student who is viewed as male, but identifies as female and imagines her name could be "Melissa."

An online petition has also been initiated with the intent to garner 1,500 signatures to remove the book from the OBOB list. The petition had 1,193 signatures as of this writing. Another online petition to retain "George" is seeking 2,500 signatures and had 2,286 as of press time Thursday.

To take part in OBOB, students are assigned a reading list of 16 books and are asked quiz questions about the content of the books, the book titles, and must be able to identify the author. Teams are usually made up of four students who will often split the assigned reading list.

Students in the Scappoose and St. Helens school districts participated in OBOB competitions in the 2017-18 school year. One team from St. Helens Middle School advanced to the regional level, while another from Otto Petersen Elementary School made it all the way to the state level in April.

In St. Helens, Superintendent Scot Stockwell explained that OBOB is an enriching program that encourages students to read.

"As a district we strongly encourage all of our schools to participate in enrichment type programs such as OBoB," Stockwell stated in part in an email to the Spotlight. "At this time the district does not feel the need to make a special statement as we believe in individual's right to make choices."

Participation is completely voluntary, Stockwell added, as is reading books on the OBOB list, which are vetted and chosen by a state selection committee

generally made up of teachers,

librarians or instructional coaches.

"The district does not require students to participate in the program," Stockwell continued. "The format of OBoB is such that if a student chose not to read the book George by Alex Gino, another student that did choose to read the book could participate."

St. Helens Board Chair Kellie Smith said that as a parent of three students — one in kindergarten, a third-grader and a sixth-grader — and an OBOB volunteer, the choice to participate in the competition and to read or not read the book is something participants must decide for themselves.

"What we find appropriate in our home isn't going to be the same as what someone else finds appropriate in their home, and vice versa," Smith explained in an email to the Spotlight. "Therefore, I truly feel the same way as Mr. Stockwell, if it's not a book your child would enjoy reading for OBOB, then don't pick that one. It might change the level of participation this year, but it is a club and it is the parent's right to decide what is appropriate for their child."

In Scappoose, Interim Superintendent Ron Alley explained that the conversation is still in the early stages for the 2018-19 competition season.

"There have been some very initial conversations with the admin of Warren and Grant Watts regarding [the book]. Again, these have been very initial conversations. The OBOB group picks the books for everyone as I understand the process and if a school only competes in district the book would not be part of the selected readings. Only if a school decided to move on to a regional competition would the book become part of the questions for the competition," Alley explained by email. "Some districts decide not to read a particular book, knowing the students won't be able to answer the questions on that reading."

As the current school year wraps up, Alley noted that many of those decisions will likely be made in fall, when OBOB teams start gearing up for the spring competitions.

"There will need to be much more dialogue with the board and the schools to come to any form of a plan at this point. Luckily the decision doesn't need to be made until fall so we will be able to discuss as a board and make a well determined plan where all voices can be heard," Alley stated.

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