Jayme McElvany speaks at the Milan school board meeting on Jan. 12. (Screenshot via Michigan Advance)
Jayme McElvany speaks at the Milan school board meeting on Jan. 12. (Screenshot via Michigan Advance)

BY JON KING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Threats of rape and selections from a pornographic website were some of the features at a meeting this month of a school board in Southeast Michigan.

Milan Area Schools, which serves students in both Washtenaw and Monroe counties, has not been immune from the ongoing battle from right-wing “parental rights” activists with complaints starting last year over the content of certain books available to students that often involve LGBTQ+ issues. That follows protests in 2020 from activists over masks to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Leading that charge in Milan has been Jayme McElvany, a well-known activist who organized Let Them Play Inc., a group that had sued the state to end COVID-19 restrictions on high school sports. While that lawsuit ultimately failed in the courts, the state ended its ban on contact sports soon after it was filed.

In addition to saying she attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington D.C., that later resulted in a mob storming the Capitol building, McElvany has also prominently posted debunked election fraud conspiracies and QAnon rhetoric. 

She was a featured guest at a 2021 rally for Garrett Soldano, a failed 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidate who also weighed in on Facebook on the Milan school board meeting.

McElvany, whose child graduated from the district in June, has been speaking out at Milan school board meetings since last summer and again addressed the board on Jan. 12, when she launched into three minutes of sexually explicit dialogue she said came from books at Milan High School.

As she spoke, an acquaintance held up various books while McElvany read aloud passages depicting sexual acts.

When her three minutes were up, she then held up a piece of paper and shouted, “All the stuff I read right here was from Penthouse,” before pointing to the books and saying, “And these books are from your school. How is that OK?”

But to many observers it was not at all clear what she had been reading and they came away with the impression that most, if not all, of what she quoted was from Penthouse, a magazine and website that has adult pornographic content.

McElvany told the Michigan Advance her intent was to compare passages from books in the school’s library with those found in Penthouse.

“Actually, if you watch the video, the parts I read from Penthouse were extremely mild compared to what I read from the books,” she said. “They should be ashamed that they couldn’t even tell the difference between that book and the books from their school library.”

The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MIPASS), a grassroots group of parents from across the state that advocates for school safety, condemned the incident in an online post.

“Under no circumstance are such books being read to children by their teachers,” stated the post. “Yet this person took it upon herself to read actual pornography in front of several minors who were at the meeting without their parents’ knowledge or permission. The books these individuals question are typically not part of any required reading and these parents ALREADY have the right to notify the school district of books they do not want their children to check out. However, these parents also believe themselves to be legal experts on what the definitions of ‘porn,’ ‘sexually explicit’ and ‘obscene’ are when it comes to these books. Labeling a book as such, does not make it so. Removing a book prior to finding that it indeed meets the criteria, is a first amendment violation.”

MIPASS says such behavior “is emboldening the worst among us to make death and rape threats to teachers and board members in the Milan School District.”

Later in the meeting, a board member addressed that very issue.

“It becomes very difficult though to continue to compromise and have honest discussions about these books when the following language is routinely thrown at you: ‘disgusting, shameful, pervert, groomer,’” said Board Secretary Michelle Heikka. “The playbook seems to be that if I can’t convince you of my point of view, I’ll resort to name calling and try and get you there. And once you reduce someone to something as horrific as a pervert or a groomer, the next step becomes very easy and it incites some to actually resort to physical threats.”

Heikka then read several profane comments the board had received concerning their unwillingness to simply ban books outright and instead commit to a review process. 

“You stupid c–t,” read one. “You best remove those books from the library like ASAP dumb f–ks. You are all brainwashed. Perhaps too many vaccines.”

“You are a piece of s–t and you know that,” read another. “You sold your soul to Satan. I hope one of those parents kicks the s–t out of you. Stay away from vaccines. It’s quite obvious it has warped your brains. Burn in hell.”

Heikka then quoted a third email, “I pray your families are raped and murdered by the trash crossing the border and you find them in the act, then they do the same to you after making you watch them finish with the others. You are f–king scum.”

Heikka noted that comments on Facebook suggested that tarring and feathering the board might be an option or even having them criminally charged.

“None of this solves the real issues that our schools are facing,” she said “Us board members are dealing with death and rape threats instead of curriculum safety, our students’ mental health, their preparedness to enter the world when they graduate, and how to recruit and retain quality teachers. I encourage everyone to stop with hyperbole and the name calling and quite frankly the incitement of violence. Let’s focus on the students, their needs and how we can come together to solve these issues our schools and community are facing.”

When asked about the threats of violence, McElvany called them “horrific” and “100% unacceptable,” but then used language that could seemingly justify it.

“You would think that this would be one topic that the two sides would be able to come together on,” she said. “But the minds of these children are precious and must be protected at all costs. Obviously there are going to be some things that the sides disagree on as far as what they want their child to have access to, but I don’t understand how a single parent on the planet would want their child reading this stuff. It’s mind-blowing to me.”

The threats were not only directed at board members, but at students, as well.

One student who spoke at the meeting expressed exasperation at the notion fellow students were being scandalized by the books.

“This is getting pretty old,” he said. “You guys reading this stuff, it’s really not that bad. Your kids can just look this stuff up on their phone. Your kids all have phones. They’re not going to check books out of the library just to read that. They’re not. They’re teenagers. What do you expect? Just get over yourself. You’re not protecting them from anything.”

He then said that the books in question were better than many things they can find on the internet. 

“You know, reading does make them a bit smarter. Rather them do that than, you know, watch porn on the internet. Just saying, just a lesser of two evils. So, you know, stop reading the porn. It gets kind of annoying. I’m kind of tired of hearing it.”

However, that statement was twisted in a social media post by Soldano, who is seeking to be co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party on a ticket with Matt DePerno, who is running to be chair.

Soldano lost the Michigan GOP gubernatorial primary in August, while DePerno was defeated in his bid last November to be attorney general. Both DePernor and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon campaigned hard on anti-LGBTQ+ and parental rights issues.

On his campaign Facebook page, Soldano posted an edited clip of the student speaking and took the statement out of context.

“Student says reading [porn] makes you smarter, so it’s better than watching porn on the internet,” said the post. “It’s unfortunate that these adults are manipulating the minds of these young children.”

That elicited a string of responses that included calling the student a “weirdo,” “porn addict,” “basement dweller,” and “heathen” along with one threat that “this kid needs to get his teeth knocked out.” Another posted the student’s name, which the Advance is not printing, as he is a minor.

Soldano posted a photo of himself, DePerno and a group of right-wing activists he calls his “grassroots army” at the school board meeting.

A request for comment to Soldano about the violent rhetoric went unreturned.

Among the books McElvany says she quoted from at the meeting were “Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah Maas and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. While a judge in Virginia ruled last year that neither book is obscene, “Gender Queer,” which details Kobabe’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality, was labeledby the American Library Association as the most banned book of 2021.

Also on that list was “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which McElvany and other Milan parents object to being available to students in Milan. That particular book is a memoir of Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black man. 

Because many of the books are written by, and/or have characters who represent, BIPOC and the LGBTQ+ community, McElvany says she and others critical of the literature have been unfairly characterized as being biased.

“Every time we read the books out loud, the opposing side would say, ‘These books are not pornographic; you’re just racist’ if a character or author happened to be other than white,” she said. “Or they would say, ‘You’re just homophobic’ if the character or author happened to be part of the LGBTQ group. Or they would say ‘you’re victim shamers’ if the book happened to be about rape or incest. We continually insisted that none of those things were true, but that all of these books were pornographic/sexually explicit.”

However, McElvany over the weekend posted a video on Facebook attacking a program through the National Education Association (NEA) LGBTQ+ Caucus that provides badges to teachers that say, “I’m Here” in order to “tell everyone that you are a safe person with whom to discuss LGBTQ+ issues,” says the group’s website. “Affirming LGBTQ+ youth couldn’t be easier than by identifying yourself as a safe and supportive person.”

The back of the badge contains a QR code that leads to an “I’m HERE Toolkit” that includes links to a variety of LGBTQ+ issues, organizations, and resources.

In the video, McElvany questions why the online toolkit contains explicit sex education information, including about various forms of masturbation.

“The problem that people have right now with the books and then with this crap is, ‘Why is everything about sex?’ I know so many members of the LGBTQ community that are disgusted by this because it’s like, ‘We’re not all about sex. It’s not everything that we do or think is sex, sex, sex and push sex on these kids,’ she says. “I want to read some of this to you guys so you guys can be as baffled as me. Again, this isn’t about LGBTQ, this is about sexually explicit repulsive disgustingness. That’s what it is.”

McElvany mentions that the issue over the badges has created “big fights” in Ohio and indeed, a controversy over the badges erupted in September in Hilliard City Schools in Columbus when parents expressed outrage over the explicit nature of the information found in the online toolkit. 

However, the Hilliard Education Association, which sponsored the badge program, said the toolkit was not for students.

“The QR code on the back of the badge links to a long list of resources for educators –not students—to ensure trusted adults are equipped to support their students and provide assistance as needed,” read a statement on their website.

After noting that LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers due to being stigmatized by the people around them, the HEA said the “I’m Here” program is needed to show kids there are adults who care about and value who they are.

“Unfortunately, extremists working to amplify the playbooks of a national network of political radicals are once again trying to manufacture controversy and weaponize LGBTQ+ issues,” said the group, adding that LGBTQ+ kids “don’t need to have pundits and political puppeteers spinning up a moral panic around badges that simply identify some educators as trusted adults. It’s disingenuous and cruel, and we must all come together to demand better for our kids.”

Back in Milan, however, Heikka said that great lengths had been undertaken to ensure that parents did have a voice in the type of material their children could read. 

“There is a compromise here that we can work towards so that we can address the concerns of those who don’t think that children should be able to read these books and those who believe that these books provide important windows and representation for some of our children,” she said. “That’s exactly why I proposed early on our new policy here at the schools where as parents you can sign up and so that you will get a notification from the school every time your child checks out a book and then you can exercise your parental choice and decide whether or not your child can read that. It’s also exactly why at the last board meeting that I made the motion that the book ‘Fun Home’ (by Alison Bechdel) would be removed from the shelf and would be segregated and required parental consent before that book can be viewed or checked out by anyone in the district.”

Another parent who addressed the board Thursday, Ashley St. Clair, spoke to that very point and questioned whether critics like McElvany were actually interested in finding common ground.

“It seems to me that the district’s just trying to help make sure that the parents are staying informed as to their children’s choices,” said St. Clair. “Is it the school board that took a book from the general circulation that now needs parental consent to even look at, let alone check out of the library? Because it seems like you guys (the board) are actually trying to make it harder for kids to get their hands on those books. Could it be the teachers that don’t have any of these books as required reading?  I think the teachers are just trying to get the kids to actually do their homework and participate in class. Or is it just the librarian who keeps a book on a shelf?”

St. Clair said she emailed the district to see how many times the books in question have been checked out.

“Surely, if they are being pushed onto our kids, they must be flying off of the shelves,” she said. “It turns out your kids are not reading these books. Let’s start with the book that the board just pulled from the shelves, Fun Home. It was checked out one time in 2022 and one time in 2021. Now it does get interesting though when you get to the book, ‘Push.’ 

“Between 2010 and 2020, that book was only checked out 12 times in 10 years. One time in 2021 and seven times in 2022. So it kind of is showing that the parents who keep coming to these meetings are peaking the interest of the student body. It seems like the people pushing these books on kids are the very adults yelling at school board meetings about them, compiling them into easily accessible public lists and reading them aloud on their public Facebook pages for everyone to hear and enjoy. It’s almost like if you tell kids not to read something, they will.”

As for the continued protests at school board meetings, MIPASS said last Thursday’s gathering in Milan represented a new low and one that could no longer be ignored.

“A series of cases have already ruled on these issues and therefore we are calling on Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to issue an opinion in order to put a stop to the madness taking over our schools, before someone gets hurt,” said the group.

A message was sent to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office asking for a comment on the MIPASS request, but was not returned.

This story was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.