Intense book debate: Police called after white parent uses N-word, profanity from books to call out content, riling Black parents

Johnston School board officials said it's standard protocol to call the police if there's a contentious debate like Monday night's over high school reading material.

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When the Johnston School Board went into a brief recess during Monday's contentious meeting about the books being used in its high schools, school officials said they followed protocol when they called the police, a spokesperson said on Tuesday.

A long list of parents, a member of a library organization and students spoke to the board about two books at the center of a heated debate in the district: “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.

During public comment, parent Michelle Veach, can be heard on the district’s livestream saying the N-word and using profanity and an antigay slur she said are contained in the books while reading a statement against the language used in the books, which upset some parents in the audience. Voices can be heard in a cellphone video of the meeting asking the board whether it’s OK to use profanity and racial epithets at a board meeting.

The board released a statement on Tuesday about the exchange. Director of Communications and Board Secretary Lynn Meadows said it’s the district’s standard operating protocol to have police present if they expect a “contentious exchange.” She said the officer was not present at the meeting before the exchange began. Meadows said a parent and former school board candidate Tiara Mays “left after the exchange.” No members of the public interacted with the police, she said.

Janet Wilwerding, communications manager for the city of Johnston, said a police lieutenant told her an officer was sent to the meeting at the request of a school official.

“He said our involvement last night was (that) we talked to a district employee and we walked through the building and that was the extent of it,” she said.

In an interview with WHO-13 News, Mays said she questioned the board about the profanity and slurs Veach said aloud.

“We know that the words are in there for educational purposes to provide critical analysis. But it's different to get into a public forum and just say the words outright, out of context, with no regard to informing us how the words are utilized,” she said. .

“Because the language cited by the parent is used in the books under consideration, it was not deemed to be “defamatory” or a personal attack to board members or the general public. Since board policy was followed, this member of the public was allowed to express her views,” the district’s statement about the exchange read.

Watch the board discuss its policy

The board went into recess shortly after Veach spoke and some in the audience bristled over the remarks. When they reconvened, the district's participation policy was read.

The board's policy on public participation states:

“The board has a significant interest in maintaining the decorum of its meetings and it is expected that members of the public and the board will address each other with civility,” according to the policy. “The orderly process of the board meeting will not be interfered with or disrupted by public comment. Only individuals recognized by the board president will be allowed to speak. Comments by others are out of order. If disruptive, the individual causing disruption may be asked to leave the board meeting. Defamatory comments may be subject to legal action.”

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At Monday's meeting, the board voted to allow the book by Alexie to remain a “choice piece of curriculum.” The board also discussed methods to better inform parents about reading materials.

Several disputes have rocked the district in recent months. Three of the newest Johnston school board members signed the controversial 1776 pledge, pushed by former president Donald Trump, which asks signers to “stop the Anti-American Indoctrination of Our Children and Grandchildren.” The board also recently voted to rescind its face mask mandate. According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Sen. Jake Chapman said during a Johnston school board meeting last month that teachers who give “obscene” books to students should face legal consequences.

The controversy in Johnston is being echoed in districts across the country as conservatives have worked to ban books with LGBTQ themes and those by writers of color.

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