A man speaks at a podium in front of people seated in rows
Art Smith, an apostle for the Community of Christ and parent of a nonbinary child in the Independence School District, speaks at a school board meeting July 12. Smith was opposing the district’s decision to remove a “Cats vs. Robots” book from elementary schools because it features a nonbinary character. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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The email arrived when Tiona Horning’s family was eating dinner. It said the Independence School District was removing a library book, “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War” by Lewis Peterson and Margaret Stohl, from elementary schools because it included a nonbinary character. 

Tiona, a 16-year-old rising junior at Van Horn High School, is nonbinary. 

As the rest of the family discussed the email, “I went to the couch and lay down and tried not to cry because of how terrible it was,” Tiona said. 

Tiona’s dad, Art Smith, is an apostle for the Community of Christ. He quickly wrote to the two school board members he knew personally to express his disappointment. He eventually scheduled individual meetings with Superintendent Dale Herl and most of the board members, spoke at a board meeting Tuesday night, and encouraged other parents upset with the decision to speak up as well.

The choice to remove the book “sends a message to my nonbinary kid that they are too complicated or too dangerous for an elementary school child to accidentally stumble on something describing their identity without lots of parental supervision and guidance,” Smith told The Kansas City Beacon.

“That sends a message to my kid, that my kid is not welcome in Independence School District.”

At a packed school board meeting Tuesday night, Smith was one of two people who spoke against the book’s removal. Three spoke in favor of the decision. 

Anthony Mondaine, the board’s newly elected member, made a motion to extend the normal 30-minute public comment time to allow anyone who had signed up by the deadline to speak. No one seconded the motion so it failed without coming up for a vote.

Parent worried Independence schools’ process for book removal isn’t clear 

District parent Wendy Baird thinks “Cats vs. Robots” might have disappeared from Independence School District libraries without fanfare had she not attended the board’s June 14 meeting. 

The meeting agenda noted only that the board would consider the “Approval of Challenged Materials Review Committee Recommendation.” 

Independence school board meetings aren’t livestreamed or recorded, and meeting minutes aren’t released until they are approved at the following meeting a month later. 

At the June meeting, the board voted 6-1 to remove the book from elementary schools, with only Mondaine dissenting. Older students can still read the book, which is categorized for grade levels 3-7. 

Eric Knipp, board president, responded to an interview request from The Beacon with an emailed statement reiterating the district’s process for reviewing and removing the book after a parent complaint. 

“The review committee believed it was not appropriate in an elementary setting and gave the recommendation to the Board of Education for it to only be accessible in our middle and high school libraries,” the statement read in part. “The district does provide free library cards to all K-12 students and families so they can access any material families wish at their local public library.”

Even the more detailed board packet that Baird requested didn’t explain the grounds for concern or who was on the review committee, she said. 

Art Smith and his child Tiona Horning are pictured after an Independence school board meeting July 12. Tiona is a nonbinary student in the district, and Smith spoke against the board’s decision to remove a book featuring a nonbinary character. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Baird submitted a records request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law to receive that information. Before getting a response, she quickly checked out the book, theorized that it was removed because of a nonbinary character, and began to post about it on social media and reach out to news outlets. 

“I don’t believe like any of this was done to create harm or to be unkind to nonbinary families and students, but I do think that it wasn’t meant to see the light of day that it did,” Baird said. “I don’t think they were expecting the kind of response, but that’s also because they’ve been largely allowed to operate with very few people in the room and because people aren’t paying attention.” 

Smith said his family received an email from the district at 5:30 p.m. on June 16. 

It stated that in April, a parent requested that the district review “Cats vs. Robots.” The district convened a nine-member committee that included “community members” and parents. 

Committee minutes Baird received show the committee voted anonymously 6-3 to fully remove the book from elementary schools. 

In the letter to parents, the district explained that the decision sprang from a desire to allow parents to make decisions about content their children are exposed to. 

“There are topics in the Cats vs. Robots book, including reference to non-binary sexual orientation, which are not evident from the title or cover information which may be new to young readers,” the letter says. 

Baird said she knew at least two other people who had signed up for public comment at Tuesday’s meeting and found it “disappointing” that the board didn’t allow everyone to speak. 

What’s in the ‘Cats vs. Robots’ book

In an open letter, authors Peterson and Stohl asked the board to reconsider its decision to remove the book. They argued it wasn’t supported by district policies and was based on misinformation, such as that nonbinary gender is “new,” is a sexual orientation, or constitutes a “mature” topic.  

In a three and a half page excerpt of the book’s ninth chapter, Peterson and Stohl introduce a nonbinary character named Javi and explain nonbinary gender and pronouns, mostly in the form of a sample dialogue that Javi has with people who are skeptical of the term. 

In the dialogue, someone asks Javi if they are saying “the whole BOY-versus-GIRL thing is just something we made up?” 

“Mostly, yes, and it even changes depending on where you’re from,” Javi responds. “To me, gender is just a way of putting people in two pre-defined boxes. But I don’t fit in either of those two boxes.” 

Speakers and committee members who objected to the book focused on Javi’s characterization of gender and the need for parental guidance when young children are exposed to a new and “complicated” topic. 

The committee report on its decision notes that a point in favor of removing the book was that students who read it and didn’t discuss it with anyone “would be getting a very specific message regarding this topic, which is complicated and could be life-altering, without alternate views or without processing with parents.” 

“When I read the definition (of nonbinary), my initial response, my response today, is this is a very heavy subject,” Bruce Gibbs, a member of the committee, said at the July meeting.  “And my heart does go out to the person who spoke (Smith), by the way, but this is a heavy subject that’s not age appropriate for kids.” 

The meeting room was full July 12 during an Independence School District board meeting. Community members spoke for and against the board’s decision to remove a book that features a nonbinary character. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon) 

Gibbs also objected to the characterization of gender as something “made up” and the fact that Javi refers to stereotypes of women to explain why the gender binary doesn’t make sense; he said it could cause children to think they can’t defy stereotypes while still being girls. 

But Smith and Tiona told The Beacon it’s important for children to see nonbinary characters represented, even at a young age. 

Smith said students start developing a sense of self, and sometimes teasing each other for being “tomboys” or “sissies,” before the middle school years.

The review committee notes that children in the district as young as second grade identify as nonbinary. 

“It’s a moment of joy in your kid’s day when they find themselves in something,” Smith said before Tuesday’s meeting, as Tiona smiled and nodded in agreement. “And I know from what I’ve read and seen, it’s more than that. I mean, it can really be a matter of a lifeline to kids, you know, in a community where you’ve got really high rates of mental health problems and worse.”

“Even if people aren’t in the LGBT community or whatever, people need to see that there’s people who are different and that it’s OK,” Tiona added. 

If “everyone has to spend like seven or so hours in school every day, it should be somewhere awesome where it’s like actually accepting,” Tiona said.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.