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Scappoose School Board entertains resolution to ban the book 'George' from competition in district, but votes measure down

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Parent Nicole Bainbridge speaks during a Scappoose School District school board meeting board room which was packed Monday, Jan. 14, when the school board discussed removing a book called 'George' from its Oregon Battle of the Books competiton list. Bainbridge spoke in favor of the resolution. The school board ultimately failed to pass the resolution, however, and schools will continue to particpate in the program which started competitions this week. The Scappoose School District will continue with the full catalog of required Oregon Battle of the Books reading this year, despite criticism over inclusion of the book "George," which has a transgender student as a protagonist.

Following a limited public comment period at the Monday, Jan. 14, school board meeting, the board failed to pass a resolution by a 5-2 vote that sought to remove "George" from the district's OBOB reading list, with some board members commenting that parents should have final say on whether the book is appropriate for their children.

Board members Lisa Maloney and Tim Brooks voted in favor of removing the book from the required reading list. Maloney proposed the resolution to remove "George," noting she did so as a reaction to concerns raised by parents.

Oregon Battle of the Books, commonly called OBOB, is a voluntary out-of-school reading competition that requires teams of students to answer trivia questions about a list of preselected books. The students compete at the school and district level before moving on to regional and statewide competitions.

Alex Gino's book "George," included at the state level for students in third to fifth grades, tells the story of a 10-year-old transgender student perceived as a male but who identifies as a female with the name "Melissa."

The book was announced last spring and drew quick controversy. Two districts in Oregon chose not to take part in OBOB in 2018-19 because of "George." Last summer, school district staff in Scappoose said discussion about OBOB would occur in fall when the competition season got underway, though the conversation at the time principally regarded the voluntary nature of OBOB.

While the district continued to move forward with participation in the statewide reading program, several parents approached the school board in December citing concerns about "George." Some referenced inappropriate themes about children lying to parents and references to pornographic material.

Had the book been removed, the school district would have sought to only compete against other districts that also removed "George."

The school district office was standing-room only during the Monday school board meeting, with 30 minutes allocated to public comment. Random names were drawn from a pool to determine who could comment on the proposed resolution.

Some parents, teachers and OBOB coaches voiced concerns the district was attempting to pass a resolution to remove "George" from the reading list well after the OBOB book list had been announced last spring. Many students have already read most of the OBOB books and have been preparing since October for the competition season, which started this week.

"This was decided months ago. Doing this now is punishing kids who are already reading these books," said Jaime McHugh, an OBOB coach. "It's terrible to take this away and punish them."

Others said the book introduced an opportunity to discuss topics that might not otherwise come up with students, and that ultimately parents should decide whether or not a student is allowed to read the book.

Conversely, parents who favored removing "George" from the reading list said its inclusion in the school environment could prompt students to discuss topics or use words, like "penis" or "sex," that could get them in trouble at school.

Others said they were not opposed to the content, but thought it was not age-appropriate for third-graders.

"You can say it's voluntary, but you have enticed my kids to want to join this program," Kilynn Baker said to the board. "That stuff is my responsibility to teach my children. It's not about the transgender issues, but the age range."

After the resolution failed, Brooks suggested amending it to allow students to participate in OBOB by only reading 15 of the books and excluding "George" from district competitions, but still allowing participation in regional and state competitions. That action also failed on the same 5-2 line.

Representatives from Basic Rights Oregon attended the meeting and planned to speak but were not selected in the random drawing. Kieran Chase, a transgender justice trainer and organizer with BRO, said after the meeting they were grateful the resolution failed.

"I know a lot of kids who are super excited to participate in Oregon Battle of the Books and, in particular, some transgender kids in this age range about 'George' being included, because it's given them an avenue to talk about their experience," Chase said.

Ivy Freimuth, a parent in favor of the resolution to remove "George" from the list, said that while she was disappointed it didn't pass and the board couldn't find a way to please both sides, she was glad the discussion made parents more aware of the book so they that can make their own choices.

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