Book blowup highlights changing role of schools


A Marysville teacher found himself as the subject of a social media storm recently over a pair of books he included on an Amazon Wish List.

And while the topic of the books created the controversy, the only real problem school officials have is that proper district procedures weren’t followed. In fact, the books about gender issue could end up in local elementary schools, but as a resource rather than part of the curriculum.

The debate centers around Edgewood Elementary third-grade teacher Austin Syar and a pair of books, that were included among others on an Amazon Wish List he created. The books, “Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity” and “I Am Jazz” discuss the idea of gender identity struggles in language that elementary school children can understand.

According to Marysville Superintendent Diane Mankins, Syar promoted the Wish List on his Twitter account, which is followed by some district parents and community members. The idea behind the Wish List is that individuals can help teachers purchase materials for the classroom.

The Wish List drew a wider audience when Melissa Ackison, candidate for the Ohio Senate in District 26, expressed her disapproval of the book topics. The topic drew hundreds of comments online, many questioning the idea of exposing young children to such a mature topic.

“How do you feel about a school teacher at Edgewood Elementary reading books about gender questioning and sexual transformation to your third grade child?” Ackison wrote. “This teacher posted his Amazon wish list of gender transitioning and gender identity/questioning books that he has been successful in getting the public to purchase for our public school classrooms.”

But Mankins said the books in question were not intended to be part of classroom instruction.

“We’re not teaching gender identity in third grade,” she said.

Rather, Syar intended to have the books available if he encountered a student struggling with a gender identity issue, Mankins said. She said teachers and guidance counselors in local elementary schools have similar reading material available for a variety of issues such as divorce, death and adoption.

“Kids and families look to us for much, much more than education,” Mankins said. “Schools have evolved over time to become a social agent as well.”

While she did not know of any situation where a local third grade student had confided gender identity struggles to a teacher, Mankins said the issue in general is present among students in the school system. In the interest of being inclusive to all students, educators in the district prepare to assist students as they work through such issues, she said.

“We have to help and serve everyone,” Mankins said.

Despite that, there is still an issue of parental involvement that must be included if younger students are involved. Mankins said the parents of a student would need to approve before either of the two books in question would have been given to a young student to read.

“I Am Jazz” tells the story of a girl who knew from a very young age that she had a girl’s brain inside a boy’s body. The story is based of the real-life experiences of the author, Jazz Jennings. The author was detailed in a reality series on TLC which aired for four seasons.

“Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity” provides an introduction into how people experience gender for children ages 5-8. A guide in the back of the book provides adults with key concepts and discussion points.

Syar’s Wish List no longer appears on Amazon, but that removal was based on a failure to follow district policy. Mankins said the growth of online crowd funding campaigns, such as Gofundme, led the district to implement a new policy in 2018. The policy mandates that teachers seeking any online support from the public must first get approval of the building principal and superintendent.

Because the policy is relatively new, Syar was not disciplined in the matter, but Mankins said officials are working with him to ensure he understands the procedure going forward.

The superintendent said Syar is an effective educator and is well liked.

“He is a strong teacher who loves what he does every day,” Mankins said. “You can really tell that when you walk into his room.”

Mankins said she appreciated that Ackison’s social media posts encouraged concerned residents to contact the board office. She said the office received three negative and five positive calls about the books, as well as one person simply seeking information. She described all emails received about the books as positive in nature.

The issue has led to at least one additional sale of each book, as Mankins said she has ordered a copy of each.

“I’m going to read them myself,” she said.

If the subject of gender identity questions is handled in an age-appropriate way on the pages, she said they could still end up in the elementary schools as a resource.

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