By Maya Shimizu Harris
Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Group forms to fight book challenges


May 25, 2023

Effort also seeks to combat vilification of Wyoming teachers

CASPER - Laramie County resident Jen Solis started going to her local district's school board meetings in July of 2021, just around the time when debates at these meetings started shifting from COVID masking to school library books.

Such debates - which stem from some parents' fears that their kids are being exposed to explicit content in school books - have cropped up across Wyoming and the country. Many of these books address LGBTQ and minority issues and characters, though proponents of restricting access or banning them usually deny that they're trying to target certain groups of people.

Though Solis, who opposes these book challenges, had watched school board meetings online before, it was the first time she'd gone to one in person.

By the time fall came around, she'd gotten to know some of the other community members who regularly came to the meetings to speak against these book challenges. They started meeting casually outside of the school board meetings, talking over a glass of wine about books and the challenges educators today are facing in Wyoming and across the country.

These informal gatherings became more organized over time.

This year's legislative session, during which some lawmakers tried to push bills that would have restricted access to certain books and other educational materials, further galvanized the group to take unified action. Recently, this group of Wyoming parents and educators has come together in a coalition to combat book challenges in Wyoming amid heated debates around what should be taught at public schools and increased pressure on educators across the nation.

"It just kind of started as simply as that," Solis said. "A lot of Wyoming stuff starts just casually over shared interests and a desire to stand up for our values and our freedoms."

The Wyoming Families for Freedom, a group of roughly 150 people, launched its website last week and is hosting its first town hall meeting on Tuesday.

The group is concerned about "efforts to ban books and vilify educators" in Wyoming, its website explains. "We believe students should have access to a variety of books and materials to understand the world around them and their place in it, including stories that address subject matters that are complex or difficult," the group's website says.

The site includes information about targeted books, current book policy at Laramie County School District No. 1 and how librarians choose books for school libraries, among other things.

Wyoming Families for Freedom member Marcie Kindred, who ran and lost as a Democratic candidate for Senate District 7 last year, said the coalition is considering creating a political action committee and registering as a lobbyist.

Though Wyoming Families for Freedom is based in Laramie County right now, Kindred said she hopes it will grow across the state.

The group isn't affiliated with any national organization. Solis, who has three kids in the school district, said members had considered that option but didn't find an organization that "fit Wyoming."

Retired librarian Suzan Skaar, who is also a member of the group, described it as a "large-group of like-minded people who can't believe this is happening to our nation and to our community."

Before retiring, she had worked as a librarian for more than three decades, about half of which she spent in Laramie County School District No. 1. Her decision to retire about a year ago was partly motivated by her desire to speak out against book bans - something which she felt she wasn't able to do as an employee of the district.

Wyoming Families for Freedom aims to inform the public about book challenges happening in Laramie County at its town hall on Tuesday.

Laramie County School District No. 1 is considering adopting new library policies to quell the concerns of some community members around school library books they deem inappropriate for school-aged kids. The proposed changes are expected to be introduced at the next Laramie County School Board meeting on June 5.

Kindred said group members plan to show up at the meeting in purple to represent Wyoming Families for Freedom.

The coalition, she said, has organized trainings on how to give testimony and is asking people to speak at the upcoming meeting.

Skaar said she feels the priority right now is to "respond strongly" to proposed changes to the school district's existing library policy.

"We have a good policy," she said. "It's a professional policy, it's suited us for decades."

She fears that changes to the district's library policy that restrict access to books could create a "domino effect" with broader implications.

"It'll be more books, it'll be curriculum, it'll be a whole upending of our public education system," she said. "That's how I feel, and that's why I want to get involved."

Laramie County is home to a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a group with national origins that aims to defend "parental rights," and which has pushed to restrict access to certain books in school libraries across the nation.

There are also local Moms for Liberty groups registered on the organization's national website in Natrona and Sweetwater counties.

Challenges to school library books have also cropped up in several Wyoming communities in recent years.

The Wyoming Families for Freedom's town hall will take place Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne from 6:30-8 p.m.

This story was published on May 26, 2023.


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