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'This isn't just happening in a few places anymore': There's efforts to ban books in WNY schools

Hamburg board of education
Tom Dinki
A parent at the Sept. 13, 2022 Hamburg Central School District Board of Education meeting speaks in opposition of book banning efforts.

The Hamburg Central School District Board of Education gathered for its first meeting of the new school year last month.

Board members ratified a new contract with the district’s clerical workers, and discussed a Parent Teacher Association raffle for Buffalo Bills tickets. But the jovial atmosphere of the meeting changed when it came time for public comments.

Several parents spoke out against what they said were books with sexually explicit content being assigned to students.

One of those parents was Jackie Best, who has taken issue with her son’s ninth grade summer reading list. One of the featured books was “Looking for Alaska,” a 2005 young adult novel that has a scene depicting oral sex.

“Give us a heads up of what’s going on and a permission slip if we prefer our children not to do that — not to read those books,” Best told the board.

Yet even more speakers spoke in defense of the district’s assigned reading material, including Mallory Russo-Gang, whose daughter is in eighth grade.

“Our teachers deserve to teach without a shroud of fear,” Russo-Gang told the board. “And our students, most importantly, have the right to a diverse and challenging education.”

Although the board didn’t respond to any of the speakers, Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell has stood behind the district’s curriculum. In the case of the ninth grade summer reading list, he notes it was for an advanced English class and that students could choose any book on it.

Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell
Tom Dinki
Hamburg Central School District Superintendent Michael Cornell speaks at the district's Board of Education meeting Sept. 13, 2022.

While parents have a right to voice concerns, Cornell said parents concerned about books are in the minority.

“I think, for the most part, people accept that in the United States of America book banning is something that's been frowned upon for generations,” he said.

This fight happening in Hamburg is happening in districts across the U.S.

Free-speech organization PEN America found over 2,500 instances of book banning last school year, affecting over 1,600 unique titles.

“So this isn't just happening in a few places anymore,” said PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs, Jonathan Friedmann.

In New York state, the group found at least 13 book bans in four school districts. Although none of those were in Western New York, the issue has been playing out locally in school board meetings and social media pages.

Moms for Liberty opposes books throughout Erie County

To hear Best tell it, she “woke up” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said she first began speaking out at Hamburg school board meetings in 2021 in opposition to COVID restrictions.

Best and two other aligned candidates, Tammy DeLong and Kelly Hunter, lost a hotly contested Hamburg school board race against three incumbents in May. Shortly after, Best started the Erie County chapter of Moms for Liberty.

It’s a Florida-based conservative group founded in 2021 that now has over 200 chapters across the U.S, and says it’s “fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights.”

Moms for Liberty has opposed mask mandates in schools and, more frequently, books.

Although the Erie County chapter has requested books be removed from districts, Best said it has also suggested compromises, such as stickers labeling books with sexual content or an “opt-in system.”

Jackie Best
Tom Dinki
Jackie Best, chair of the Erie County chapter of Moms for Liberty, poses for a photo at the group's meeting at a West Seneca church Sept. 6, 2022.

“So we're not just saying these books need to go away,” she said. “We're saying if they are in a school setting, then parents should be included in the conversation.”

The chapter has started compiling a list of which districts have which books, and will make parents in those districts aware of them. In addition to Hamburg, the chapter has taken issue with books in Orchard Park, West Seneca, Lancaster, Clarence, Cheektowaga, Williamsville, Amherst and Kenmore.

Some of those books feature homosexuality, like “Jack of Hearts and Other Parts,” which is about a sexually active gay high school student. The PEN America report found that 41% of banned books last year featured LGBTQ themes or a major character who is gay or transgender.

Best denied Moms for Liberty is anti-gay, but said she is concerned that what she called “gender ideology,” as well as “critical race theory,” is being taught in schools.

“I don’t want sex in my children's books, heterosexual or homosexual,” Best said. “I don't want either.”

Best appeared on the Shannon Joy radio show on WHAM 1180 in Rochester this summer. Joy titled the episode “Sexual Predators in the Schools. Comprehensive Sex Ed,” and read experts of a Fox News story that found at least 181 K-12 educators across the U.S. had been arrested on child sex-related crimes through the first half of 2022.

Joy theorized that children are being given explicit material to groom them for abuse, and even advised parents to file charges against teachers who assign such material.

“This is abusive,” Joy said, to which Best replied, “Right.”

Best said Joy’s words have been falsely attributed to her, but that she does agree with some of what Joy said.

“I do believe that children are being raised in some ways to be OK with talking to complete strangers about sex,” Best said.

Moms for Liberty isn’t the only parent group in Western New York appearing to take issue with curriculum.

WNY Students First was formed in 2021 with the stated goal of reopening schools full time, and supported legal action challenging the state’s since-revokened mask mandate for students.

In recent months, the group’s Facebook page has increasingly shared posts that are critical of race discussion in schools. It also defended book bans, sharing one post that reads, “Just because schools refuse to indoctrinate their kids doesn’t mean they’re banning books.”

WNY Students First did not respond to multiple requests for comment

Other parents, LGBTQ community defend books

Russo-Gang said she spoke in opposition to Moms for Liberty at last month’s Hamburg school board meeting to let teachers and LGBTQ students know that there are parents who support them.

“We might not be as loud yet, but we've got their back,” she said.

There was recently a small but vocal protest outside Erie County Moms for Liberty’s monthly meeting at theWELLbuffalo church in West Seneca. Protesters held signs reading “Love is Love” and “My Mind My Choice.”

Dianna Patton
Tom Dinki
Protester Dianna Patton leads chants outside the Erie County Moms for Liberty meeting in West Seneca Sept. 6, 2022.

Dianna Patton, chair of the We Exist Coalition and a transgender woman, organized the demonstration. She points to Trevor Project research that shows LGBTQ youth are 40% less likely to attempt suicide when there’s an accepting adult in their life.

“That right there is all you need to know about supporting us and letting us be who we want to be,” Patton said. “We don't want to indoctrinate anyone. I wouldn't wish this on anybody. I wouldn't. It's a hard life, a very hard life.”

Parental groups have ties to far-right groups

At the protest, Patton and other protesters faced counter-protesters.

Robby Dinero, a gym owner who was charged with trespassing at an Orchard Park school board meeting last year after allegedly refusing to wear a mask on a previous occasion, pulled his motorcycle onto the sidewalk next to protesters and tried to drown out their chants by revving his engine.

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” he told them.

By Deniro’s side and taking video of protesters was Nick Orticelli, who’s been photographed wearing the uniform of the New York Watchmen. Also present was Assemblyman David DiPietro, a Republican who has had Watchmen attend several of his events.

The New York Watchmen are a far-right, anti-government militia that has advocated for violence, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Robby Dinero
Tom Dinki
Orchard Park gym owner Robby Dinero (right) counter protests a protest against Erie County Moms for Liberty by revving his motorcycle Sept. 6, 2022.

WNY Students First also has ties to far-right groups. To vet and endorse school board candidates last spring, the group worked with the Constitutional Coalition of New York State, which SPLC considers a far-right anti-government group.

The coalition’s president is Orticelli’s wife, Nancie, who was also present at last month’s Erie County Moms for Liberty meeting in West Seneca.

Buffalo attorney Heidi Jones has been researching local far-right groups. She said these groups and Moms for Liberty have a common cause.

“They find common cause in restricting the rights of people who are not like them,” she said.

However, Best said she has never heard of far-right groups like the New York Watchmen.

“A lot of people against me and against our local chapter want to link us to these extreme right groups that I don't even know exist,” she said. “We are literally moms and dads who are just concerned about our children.”

How Hamburg moves forward

In her comments to the board last month, Russo-Gang called Hamburg “ground zero” for the book banning movement in Western New York.

While calling it unfortunate, Russo-Gang said it’s “almost been helpful.”

“It's allowed us to see what's really coming out of the woodwork in terms of that kind of ugliness,” she said.

Cornell denies his school district is any kind of hot zone for the book banning push, reiterating that he believes parents like those in Moms for Liberty are a vocal minority.

“The overwhelming majority of people that I talk to in Hamburg and that I talk to around Western New York want no part of a national political battle playing out in their child's classroom,” he said. “They just don't want to be part of it.”

Erie County Moms for Liberty is certainly making itself present at other districts, too. Just last week, a member spoke at an Orchard Park school board meeting. The chapter then accused the president of the Orchard Park Teachers Association of “slander,” after he allegedly accused Moms for Liberty of promoting facism in an email to union members.

Cornell said parents do have a say in curriculum. The PTA nominates parents to the district’s 60-member strategic planning committee.

But he stressed that teachers have the ultimate say. He estimates nearly half of his employees live in the district, and that many of them have children who attend the district.

“Teachers are parents,” he said. “They don't stop being parents because they're also teachers.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.