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Omaha radio interview sets off firestorm for Kearney Public Schools

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Kearney Public Schools Superintendent Jason Mundorf has pushed back against comments from a former political candidate who alleged inappropriate books were housed in district schools.

Per a letter from Mundorf to district parents, Matt Innis of Crete appeared on the Scott Voorhees morning show on Omaha’s KFAB 1110 radio to discuss the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, which came up in relation to a since-deleted tweet from the Nebraska Republican Party to Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb.

Jason Mundorf

Mundorf

“In the book, there is a sexually explicit picture that was the basis of the graphic tweet, and Mr. Innis was asked about the book. After some back and forth with the host, Mr. Innis also read some excerpts from a different book, ‘Looking for Alaska,’ and stated that book was housed at Kearney High School and the Hanny Arram Center for Success, along with many other districts in Nebraska. Furthermore, Mr. Innis also went on to make a brief mention of the book ‘Brave Face’ and ‘It Feels Good to Be Yourself,’” Mundorf said in the letter.

“Mr. Innis discussed the proposed recommended reading levels of the book and made listeners question whether or not these books were in their local public schools and to which students they were available,” Mundorf continued.

After listening to the show, Mundorf said he began his own research to see which, if any, of the books were available at Kearney Public Schools.

“I have a lot of people, as a superintendent, that truly are concerned about what is happening in the schools, what’s going on by what they hear. It’s very important for us to be transparent to our stakeholders, to our parents,” Mundorf told the Hub Tuesday night.

In the letter, Mundorf said after consulting the district’s media professionals, he confirmed both “Gender Queer” and “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” by Theresa Thorn are not in any KPS libraries, while there is one copy of “Brave Face” by Shaun David Hutchinson at Kearney High School and five copies of “Looking for Alaska” by John Green at Kearney High School and one copy at the Arram Center for Success, the district’s alternative option for middle school and high school students.

In the radio interview, Innis did not say “Gender Queer” is in a KPS library.

He went on to discuss and criticize “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” without clarifying either way what schools he contends have the book available.

According to an American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom report on challenged books, “Looking for Alaska” was the fourth-most challenged from 2010-2019, likely because of some profanity and a somewhat sexually-explicit scene. The associated noted, however, many challenges remain unreported. The other aforementioned books were released in 2019.

Asked what the problem with the books is, Innis said, “It’s pornographic. This is like reading something out of a smut magazine.”

In both his letter and while speaking with the Hub, Mundorf recognized that Kearney is a diverse community, and there are many students at KPS who are part of the LGBTQ community.

“Why is it so necessary with a school to have (the books) there for kids?” Innis said when asked about Mundorf’s recognition of LGBTQ students being a part of the school community. Innis said there are other avenues to access the books outside of school grounds.

“Some of those students have social/emotional mental health concerns or issues because those are tough issues to navigate as a teenager, and sometimes the only relatability they see is maybe through a fictional character in a book in a library,” Mundorf told the Hub, echoing a sentiment he made in the letter.

In the letter, Mundorf lauded the “incredibly thoughtful and passionate” media specialists with the district who review titles on an annual basis “to provide books which are of interest to young readers and reflective of the challenges students often face.”

“Kearney Public Schools is incredibly supportive of parents and your rights to determine what materials your children have access to,” Mundorf continued, noting the district’s library use policy.

A new policy adopted in December of 2021 also gives parents the choice to let their child check out library materials freely and without prior consent, or they can provide consent before their child can check out library materials. With either choice, parents can request a record of materials their child has checked out at any time.

The policy was a way for the school district to be proactive and to allow parents to be the decision maker in what materials their children are reading and have access to, not the district, then Superintendent Kent Edwards said at the time.

“The public schools need to concentrate on the core standards,” Innis said. “You need to get social and political issues out of public schools. Nobody’s saying they can’t get an education. We’re saying we don’t want this taught. Why don’t we have the right to say this is not OK?”

Innis said the core standards are math, reading, writing and “true science.”

If there is a complaint made about a book available in a school library, KPS follows a process to evaluate the book before taking any actions.

“Those formal complaints can be brought forward. It’s looked at; it’s reviewed. There’s a media committee that comes together and looks at that complaint. They determine is this the right setting? If it’s a younger grade, is this the right place for this book? Maybe it should be in an older school library. Or you have a scenario where no, it’s appropriate where it’s at, and then there’s some appeal processes for that,” he explained.

Mundrof said the school will continue to work hard to find a balance between parental rights and providing materials for kids that need it.

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