Editor’s note: The following article details the ongoing two-year bureaucratic saga that an Anchorage family has faced in unsuccessfully imploring the Anchorage School District to stop reading a book about transgenderism to elementary age students.
It’s been nearly two years since Anchorage father Joshua Lewis learned that his daughter’s sixth-grade teacher at Lake Otis Elementary was reading a book about transgenderism, genital mutilation and cross-sex hormones to their 12-year-old daughter and her classmates. The book features a boy named George who thinks he is a girl.
In one of several passages that introduce children to transgenderism, the book states:
“A boy could become a girl. She [George] had since read on the Internet that you could take girl hormones that would change your body, and you could get a bunch of different surgeries if you wanted them… This was called transitioning. You could even start before you were eighteen with pills called androgen blockers that stopped the boy hormones already inside you, from turning your body into a man’s.”
After hearing about the disturbing book from his daughter, Joshua and his wife embarked on a bureaucratically tangled and thus-far unsuccessful mission to remove the book from Anchorage schools. Lewis began by sending an email to his daughter’s teacher Marisa Latico, Lake Otis Elementary School Principal Lynn Mayberry-Burke, school counselor Shelly Atkinson and Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop.
The book, “George,” by Alex Gino was read aloud by the teacher as part of academic instruction with no prior warning to parents.
In a long chain of emails to various Anchorage educators and administrators, which has been obtained by the Watchman, the Lewis began by noting that he and his wife were never provided any advanced warning that the book would be read in class.
In the initial email, Lewis said did “not consent in any way to my child being read this material,” especially without prior notification.
“As parents, we are given the option to opt out of health class,” Lewis added. “It is unconscionable to me that the controversial subject matter of this book would be something that you would think was not necessary to bring to parents’ attention.”
He noted that the book contained the following objectionable material.
-Two references to child hormone therapy (46-47, 104-105)
-Two references to gender reassignment surgery (46-47, 141)
-Deleting web browser search history (105)
-Prolific self-loathing (throughout)
-Confusing use of pronouns (throughout)
Lewis said his daughter said she was “uncomfortable and confused” by the book and does not want to discuss the subject matter.
“I understand this book is supposed to dramatize the struggles of real people, and it is heartbreaking that any child should feel as George does in this book. If the book had been about acceptance, tolerance, kindness, or been intended as an anti-bullying measure, my response may have been different,” Lewis wrote. “That is not the aim of this book. This book is aimed at promulgating a specific set of values and was read to my child, as well as others, with no regard to the personal, social, or religious beliefs of the children and/or their parents/guardians.”
Lewis said he had a “tough time seeing something other than an activist elementary teacher intent on disseminating her values to her students.”
He added: “I am deeply offended by the fact that we are in a situation that cannot be undone. The conversations that I and other parents will have to have with our children, who may have never given a thought to their gender identity, much less hormone and surgical solutions to a problem that by all empirical evidence the vast majority of children grow out of… these conversations are not ones that should be had with a twelve-year-old.”
When the initial email was sent, the Lake Otis Elementary class was about two-thirds of the way through the book. Lewis said he wanted his daughter removed from the remaining readings, and asked the school to alert all other parents of the book as well.
“Please be assured that my focus is intently on the safety and security, mental and otherwise, of my child and the others,” Lewis emphasized. “I am distraught at the thought of previous years’ students being exposed to this material and not having the open line of communication that I have with my daughter.”
Teacher Latico responded on Jan. 21, 2020, thanking Lewis for his email and assuring him that she would respond.
Later that day Principal Mayberry-Burke reiterated that the school would be in touch soon.
Three days later Principal Mayberry-Burke told Lewis that she had spoken with the teacher, Ms. Latico and informed him that “George” was part of a larger book study focused on “anti-bullying” themes, which support the school’s learning standards, including social-emotional learning standards (SEL).
“Part of our SEL standards address social awareness, which involves developing empathy and taking the perspective of others,” the principal wrote. “Ms. Latico has also connected the novels to our 6th grade Social Studies Human Rights unit for the 3rd quarter. The selected novels share the perspectives of people included on the list of protected classes of the Anchorage School Board Anti-Discrimination Statement.”
Mayberry-Burke went on to defend the novel, saying it was approved by the district. That said, she noted that the book would be granted “additional review given the sensitive topic,” and that it would not be read during the review process.
Moving forward, the principal said Ms. Latico would share with families the themes and book titles she planned to read to children.
The principal also said Lewis could remove his daughter from the readings and discussions and have her placed in an “alternate learning activity.”
But Principal Mayberry-Burke was also quick to defend her teacher, saying she is a “master teacher and thoughtful practitioner” who is “careful to present the topic in an unprejudiced and neutral manner.”
Lewis emailed Mayberry-Burke, clarifying that he was not opposed to transgender people as such, but that the book was about much more than tolerance or anti-bullying.
“I’m having trouble understanding how it supports an anti-bullying theme, as there is actually very little bullying, and the most egregious act in the book was instigated by George,” Lewis wrote.
He added that the book did not seem to fit with the school district’s policy of allowing students to “draw their own conclusions” nor did it “respect the perspectives of others,” provide any opposing viewpoints or teach children to “discriminate between fact and fiction.”
He observed that there is considerable controversy, even among parents with children who identify as transgender – regarding the use of hormones to sexually transition children. Additionally, Lewis maintained that such discussions in a classroom are “patently wrong as it then places the burden of discussion on parents who never consented to this material.”
In a Jan. 29, 2020, response, Principal Mayberry-Burke thanked Lewis for his “feedback” and relayed that the book was being reviewed by “our Teaching and Learning Senior Director as well as our Libraries Department.”
In his formal objection to the book, Lewis raised multiple concerns, including the fact that “George” introduces young children to genital mutilation
After failing to hear of a final decision, Lewis followed up on the matter in March 2022 email to Principal Mayberry-Burke to find out whether the book was still being read to Anchorage students, and what avenues parents have to challenge objectionable volumes such as “George.”
On April 5 of this year, the principal wrote to inform Lewis that, due to the pandemic, his complaint was lost in the shuffle. She also forwarded the official school board policy about how to challenge what she called, “materials of concern.”
The next day, Lewis said he would be submitting an official challenge to the book.
In his formal objection to the book, Lewis raise multiple concerns, including the fact that “George” introduces young children to genital mutilation with a passage on page 141 in which there is reference to a child cutting off their penis with a scissor gesture to the groin area.
A little more than a month later, on May 20, Lewis received an email from Jennifer Knutson, the Anchorage School District’s director of teaching and learning informing them that the district’s Controversial Concerns Committee met on May 4 and unanimously decided that the book should be allowed in all school libraries and classrooms, and that it may be used for instructional purposes.
In justifying its decision, the committee report stated it had determined that “George” was an award-winning novel that positively features transgender characters and helps students sympathize with transgender peers.
“The main character is 10, and professional reviews recommend the title starting at 4th grade,” the committee wrote. “The committee agreed with professional reviews that references to hormone therapy and gender reassignment are dealt with in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner.”
To introduce a person – who can neither enter into a contract nor consent to sexual relations – to irreversible medical procedures does irreparable damage.”
Lewis wrote back on May 25, expressing his disappointment.
“The idea that I, as a parent, would not be informed by my local school district’s administration that they have determined to have an age-appropriate means of introducing children in the fourth grade to the notion of taking scissors to one’s own penis is among the most absurd things I could have fathomed,” he said. “If my child had a deep desire to rid themselves of an arm, or a leg, or a finger, they would be kindly and carefully counseled. It is obscene that level of care would be denied to a student facing the very real and serious issue George faces. To introduce a person – who can neither enter into a contract nor consent to sexual relations – to irreversible medical procedures does irreparable damage.”
Lewis said the committee failed to address his actual complaints and had instead simply deferred to so-called “professional” opinions.
“I am given the distinct impression this committee is simply a formality and bureaucratic hurdle for parents concerned about their children’s school environment,” he wrote. “This committee’s decision has not complied with one sentence of Board Policy 6144.”
In particular, Lewis observed that the reading of “George” seemed to violate the board’s policy prohibiting teachers from using their “position or influence on students to forward their own religious, political, economic or social views.”
Lewis raised concerns that reading “George” to students might violate state statutes that guarantee a parent’s primary role in the education of their children.
“This book smuggles controversial and permanently damaging medical procedures that aren’t even desirable for a significant portion, if not a majority of trans identifying individuals,” he added. “The unanimous decision by this committee to overlook the dangerous nature and obvious absurdity of this situation should be a testament to the radically ideologically driven nature of this institution. By acting in such an egregious manner, it not only does a disservice to every child in the district, but is tantamount to institutionalized child abuse.”
Knutson wrote a short email on May 27, saying the district would process Lewis’ appeal of the committee’s decision.
On July 20, Lewis emailed to the school district’s Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock, noting that he did not have confidence that his challenge was being properly treated in accordance with the district’s review process.
Lewis also raised concerns that reading “George” to students might violate state statutes that guarantee a parent’s primary role in the education of their children. In particular, he noted that Alaska Statute 14.03.016 states that a local school board “must include procedures providing for parent notification not less than two weeks before any activity, class, or program that includes content involving human reproduction or sexual matters is provided to a child.”
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He also highlighted that Alaska Statute (AS 14.30.361) explicitly requires that “before curriculum, literature, or materials related to sex education, human reproduction education, or human sexuality education may be used in a class or program or distributed in a school, the curriculum, literature, or materials must be available for parents to review.”
While these statues apply specifically to sex-ed classes, Lewis observed that the book, “George” is “absolutely regarding human sexuality/sexual matters.”
He added: “there may be other materials and/or educators who take it upon themselves to present inappropriate information in a setting meant to conceal it (such as my daughter was). It’s not reasonable for me to scour the school libraries for such material and so it is incumbent upon classroom educators to follow the statutes and inform parents when they intend on going over content such as this, two weeks in advance.”
On July 22, Stock responded with an email, admitting that while state statute appears to address sex-ed classes specifically, “it might apply in cases where a teacher took the book from the library and read it to the class as some activity related to classroom instruction on the topic.”
This is a developing story.
— To contact Lake Otis Elementary Principal Lynn Mayberry-Burke, call (907) 742-7400 or email email@example.com.
— To contact Lake Otis Elementary School 6th grade teacher Marisa Latico, call (907) 742-7162 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— To contact Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt, click here.
— To contact the Anchorage School Board, click here.