WESTFIELD — The Westfield Board of Education (BOE) opted during its Tuesday meeting to limit the use of the book “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race” in the classroom, following the recommendation by a district review committee.
The acceptance of the recommendation passed with an 8-to-0 vote. Board member Tara Oporto abstained, while the remaining eight board members voted in favor of the recommendation.
The book, which first garnered attention in June after being read to kindergarten classes at Lincoln School, “will be kept as a resource material to be used within the context of an approved lesson and objective,” reported Superintendent Raymond González, Ed.D.
The book, he said, should “be part of an ongoing conversation with students about race” and will not be placed in a classroom or school library, but rather used as “an interactive read-aloud for educated professionals who can skillfully present this information and help facilitate these important conversations.”
Dr. González said a formal challenge had been submitted by a community member regarding the book on September 12. Per BOE policy number 99-30, a review committee was formed on September 15 and met on September 27 for evaluation. Dr. González said the committee was comprised of “a content area supervisor, an elementary teacher, an elementary library staff member, a board member, a lay person knowledgeable in the area of the work, an elementary-school principal,” as well as the assistant superintendent of curriculum.
“The committee found the resource to be both developmentally appropriate and factually accurate as defined by the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institute,” he read from the committee’s decision.
According to Board Vice President Brendan Galligan, who also chairs the district’s Policy Committee, the board had three options regarding the committee’s recommendation: to approve, reject or modify. Had the board rejected the findings, the book would have been available to be used in classroom libraries, Mr. Galligan added.
Board member Leila Morelli, who served on the review committee, said that some members of the committee expressed concerns about parts of the book, and also praised some parts of the book. She continued to explain that, according to board policy, books cannot be banned based on being controversial.
Ms. Oporto inquired whether a lesson also would have to be approved by the board for this book to be used. Dr. González said that the board does not approve individual lessons, but rather approves curriculum. School-level administrators would be the ones to approve a lesson plan, he added.
There were comments from many audience members during the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, with some supporting the decision regarding the book and others disagreeing with the committee’s findings and the board’s decision.
Kyle George, who has been vocal about his disapproval of the book, said that the decision of the board means there will be no change, as the trained professionals who will teach the book are “the same people who brought it in and used it the first time.”
Julie Steinberg said that she supports the efforts the district is making toward diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the decision regarding the book.
Board President Amy Root said, “our role is not to determine whether an individual book in the context of an individual lesson is appropriate,” referencing a presentation made by Gwen Thornton of the New Jersey School Boards Association in the first hour of the meeting about the roles and responsibilities of school boards. Ms. Thornton said that the board’s role does not “govern the day-to-day operations of the school district,” but is “to provide oversight” and “develop policy.”