The Francis Howell School District, a half hour’s drive from St. Louis in the county of St. Charles, is the site of an ongoing battle over a nearly two-decade-old book whose contents became accessible only recently (and only as an e-book) to the students in one of its middle schools.
Local opposition has surfaced to the widely-praised sexuality education book for pre-adolescents It’s Perfectly Normal, an illustrated book with text by author Robie Harris. The book has become the target of a parent activist with children in the Barnwell Middle School, Tim Schmidt. Schmidt has objected to the book’s matter-of-fact explanation of anatomy, puberty, and sexual development for youth growing into adulthood.
Harris’s book, intended for readers ages 10 to 14, was acquired at Barnwell just this school year, and is available only in e-book format at the school library. It is not part of the required reading of the school district curriculum, nor is it listed as a recommended book for any course or subject. School policy has long ensured that if a parent wishes their child to not have access to a specific book in the library, the school will honor the parent’s request.
When the book was published in 1996, a review in Publishers Weekly praised it as
“intelligent, amiable and carefully researched [; it] frankly explains the physical, psychological, emotional and social changes that occur during puberty [and the] watercolor and pencil art reinforces [the] message that bodies come in all sizes, shapes and colors-and that each variation is ‘perfectly normal’.”
Schmidt filed a formal request that the district make the e-book unavailable to anyone:
“I emailed and then spoke with the principal, David Eckhoff at Barnwell Middle to raise my concerns about the appropriateness of this book [which] also gives detailed instructions on how to engage in sexual acts and how to masturbate. It also endorses homosexuality… While I am not typically and [sic] activist on these sorts of things, this one hits close to home knowing that my children may be exposed to this sort of rubbish.”
"It has a lot of explicit drawings," Schmidt warned. "Cartoon images, life-like cartoon images. A look of nudity. It actually shows people having sex…Most of the time, when I showed this to parents, their jaws just hit the floor…They were shocked and then their next reaction was outrage."
Schmidt’s concern quickly became fodder for several right-wing national organizations opposed to comprehensive sexuality education. The anti-abortion Life Site News described It’s Perfectly Normal as “a book that includes images of naked people, intercourse, and other pornographic material [and] promotion of abortion.”
Phillip Cosby, state director of the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri, attacked the book, erroneously referring to it as a “booklet” and linking it to Planned Parenthood:
"This booklet, endorsed by Planned Parenthood, is another example of over the top obscenity and child porn that schools recklessly expose ever-younger audiences, destroying innocence and modesty…[it] is beyond bad taste and offensive; it is pornographic and harmful to children. The words, acts and graphic pictures would be unlawful if anyone else distributed them to children."
The Family Research Council also weighed in, with Senior Fellow for Policy Studies Peter Sprigg arguing that the book should be unavailable because, “Even the title itself communicates a sort of moral relativism regarding sex, which is undoubtedly in conflict with what most parents want to teach their children on the subject."
Determined to rally support on a national and perhaps even global scale, Schmidt appealed to like-minded opponents of comprehensive sexuality education via the Facebook page of conservative entertainer Victoria Jackson (a former cast member of the television show Saturday Night Live, and now active in Tea Party political advocacy).
On Jackson’s Facebook site, Schmidt criticized both the book and the school district’s process for addressing his complaint:
“[Principal] Eckhoff then told me that he backed the librarians [sic] views and the book would remain in the library, available to children without parental consent. He did inform me that I could file a formal request to have the book removed.
“I filed the formal request and was told that a panel of 10 people would review my request. I inquired about who would be on this panel and could I attend the meeting. I was not allowed to attend the meeting or give any feedback except for my written request. The panel would be made up of the principal, two librarians, two teachers (who work for the principal), two parents (chosen by the principal) and a few other staff members. I was contacted by Dr. Greiner, the director of student learning, and when I raised some concerns about the fairness of this process he urged me to trust their process and that I might be surprised by the outcome. Well, I was certainly surprised when I received a letter this weekend stating that the panel had rejected my claim by a vote of 10-0.
“In their review they quoted an excerpt from document 6241 that states ‘no parent has the right to determine reading, viewing, or listening matter for students other than their own.’ In other words, we really don't care what the parents think about what we give to your kids. They also informed me that after their review, NO ONE can challenge this material again for 5 years. They failed to inform me that I could appeal this decision to the school board within 14 days and that other community members may also file appeals within 14 days. The decision was made on April 21st and I did not receive the letter until the weekend leaving me with one week to take action. Once again my perception is that they want to keep the parents [sic] opportunities to be involved in these matters to a minimum.”
Comments from Facebook readers indicated that several believed this was a conspiracy with ties to the Common Core State Standards, a source of continued right-wing displeasure over education in public schools. A Facebook follower named Shana Schmidt commented, “Did you share this on any of the Common Core-related sites such as MCACC or the Facebook site Missouri Moms Against Common Core or Missouri Education Watchdog?” Another, whose identifier was TimandGudrun Hinderberger, commented, “You are welcome to share this on PATRIOTS AGAINST COMMON CORE on FB.”
Despite these expressions of opposition to the book, other parents such as June Tiller defended It’s Perfectly Normal and supported keeping the e-book available: "I feel like if the school teaches them this, and they have this information available, it's very important, and it will help keep them safe."
As Schmidt’s appeal process concludes, school district officials maintain their stance that "it was determined to keep the e-book available as a resource for check-out in the library. If a parent determines that he/she does not want to their child to have access to certain materials, we honor that request."
 Book Review: “It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health,” Publishers Weekly January 29, 1996, accessed May 12, 2014 at http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-56402-159-5.
 Victoria Jackson Facebook page, accessed May 9, 2014 at https://www.facebook.com/victoriajackson?ref=stream&hc_location=stream&filter=2.
 Christina Coleman, “Some parents angry about graphic sex education book,” USA Today, May 6, 2014, accessed May 12, 2014 at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/06/parents-angry-graphic-sex-education-book/8755185/.
 Dustin Siggins, “Missouri parents outraged over pornographic, pro-abortion sex ed book in school library,” LifeSiteNews.com, May 8, 2014, accessed May 12, 2014 at http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/missouri-parents-outraged-over-pornographic-pro-abortion-sex-ed-book-in-sch/.
 Coleman, “Some parents angry…”