Impassioned parents turned out for a March 28 meeting to express anger and frustration with the fact that the Mat-Su School District offers graphic sexual books to children without parental notice or consent.
The joint Mat-Su Assembly/School Board meeting included 15 public comments that were critical of controversial materials that promote LGBTQ ideology in area schools. Four people, including one teacher, spoke in support of schools that are willing to introduce and explore controversial gender identity themes with children.
Many of the comments stemmed from a March 23-24 book fair at Teeland Middle School in which educators presented children with the opportunity to purchase controversial LGBTQ-themed books without parental involvement. Others spoke about highly sexualized books that are currently in circulation in many Mat-Su school libraries. The Watchman ran a story about this on March 22, showing that highly graphic sexually-themed books are available in many local school libraries.
Several speakers warned that these books may be a violation of state law against distributing material to minors which depicts sexual penetration, masturbation or exhibition of sexual organs. Others pointed to Alaska Statute, which says a school must provide 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.” The law also emphasizes that parents have a right to “review the content of these activities or programs before they are offered to their child.”
“It’s not a question of whether or not you can do it,” Mat-Su resident Dave Johnson emphasized. “The law says you can’t.”
Todd Smoldon, who serves as the director of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Mat-Su Valley office, spoke during the public comment period. He said the governor recently introduced his parental rights bill – HB 105 – to address some of the very issues parents were raising.
“What you have seen in this testimony is exactly why the governor introduced HB 105 this legislative session,” he said. “Clearly there is concern by people in the community about what is and is not being presented to their children.”
Smoldon said the governor introduced his bill because “he felt it was really important for parents and schools to have a conversation about what is being taught to their children and to give parents the opportunity to say, ‘Yes, this is something that I want my child to be taught,’ or, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Smoldon added that Dunleavy wants open and honest communication between educators and parents.
“He actually sees it as a unifying conversation because it will create more transparency between parents and their schools, which is really important,” he said.
A few people spoke in favor of the Teeland book fair, while defending schools and educators that promote exploration of LGBTQ sexual identities and orientations.
Tony Petroccia who teaches ROTC at Colony High School dismissed parental concerns surrounding the books.
“There’s not an issue here,” he claimed. “People have a choice to read whatever they want. It’s your choice. No one is foisting anything on these kids.”
He added that children should have the option to “learn and read whatever they want.”
“I don’t know what happened at the Teeland Middle School book fair, but I’m sure it wasn’t a curriculum that was pushed on kids,” he said. “If you don’t want to buy a book, then don’t buy it. I think the community needs to wake up a little bit. The world’s changing, and there’s a lot of change, societally, in this younger generation, and we’ve got to embrace it.”
He asserted that parents who don’t accept LGBTQ sexuality actually contribute to the mental health struggles of teens who are trying to figure out their gender identity.
“So parents, please, I mean help these kids out and help them embrace their struggle a little bit,” he said. “You know, what I’m hearing, it’s scary as an educator. We’re not telling people to choose a lifestyle, but be informed about what the changes in society are.”
Shortly after Petroccia’s testimony an ROTC student echoed many of his points. It was not clear whether she was one of Petroccia’s students.
“We deserve to choose who we want to be, whatever gender we want to be, and who we can love,” the student said. “I know most kids these days are different. They want to be a different gender or they want to love somebody else who is the same gender or different.”
“It’s my right to decide what my children see and what they read … It’s my responsibility as a parent and I take that very, very seriously.”
Ron Johnson, chair of the Alaska Republican Party’s Region 2, noted that the fundamental issue comes down to protecting and defending parental rights.
“Don’t forget the fact that it’s the parents responsibility and it’s the parents right to educate their children,” he said. “It’s my right to decide what my children see and what they read … It’s my responsibility as a parent and I take that very, very seriously.”
Several school board and assembly members addressed the issue during closing comments.
Borough Assemblywoman Stephanie Nowers was one of several assembly members who did not mention the parental concerns raised about the books, but she did say there was a need to “change the narrative” and focus on the positive work being done in Mat-Su schools. Nowers later told the Watchman that her comments were not intended to be dismissive of parental concerns regarding controversial books, but more to encourage renewed focus on good work being done in area schools.
School Board Member Ole Larson, however, blamed social media for stirring up needless controversy.
“Everybody likes this – and go after each other and yell at each other,” he said, while advising the district to promote positive public relations campaigns in order to “get ahead of social media.”
Assemblyman Morkie Tew also dismissed parental concerns.
“Yes, there was some negative input today at the beginning, and that was kind of hard to sit here and listen to,” he said.
Assemblywoman Dee McKee pushed back against these comments.
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“There was a lot of negativity in the beginning but I think it was well deserved,” she said. “These parents are dreadfully worried about their kids and they have to show up to make themselves heard. The stuff that’s in some of the books that I’ve seen – it’s just – I would be afraid to send my child to a public school that would have that stuff on hand. So, I think they need to be listened to. They are very sincere. They’re going to be strong and they’re just going to get stronger, and they should. So, bless them.”
Assemblyman Rob Yundt advised the school board to put together an independent community advisory board that could review books and curriculum and share ideas with the school board.
“To the parents that spoke tonight, I can only imagine how frustrating that must be,” he said. “We know we have a very active parent base out here. That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have, and they need to be heard.”
— Click here to contact members of the Mat-Su School Board.