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Berkshire Hills school committee to discuss police classroom book search, and aftermath

Great Barrington, Massachusetts Police Department
Nancy Eve Cohen
Great Barrington, Massachusetts Police Department

A school committee meeting this week in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, will focus on a police search last month for a book in a W. E. B. Du Bois Regional Middle School classroom.

School district officials said, in hindsight, they would have approached the incident differently.

On Dec. 8, 2023, a person filed an anonymous complaint with the Great Barrington police department. The person, whose identity is known to the police, said they had observed the book "Gender Queer" in a classroom and it depicted sexual content. According to a police incident report, the person provided photographs of the book.

The police notified the superintendent of schools for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District that they wanted to see if the book was in the classroom. According to police records the superintendent, Peter Dillon, said he didn't have an issue with that.

A plain clothed officer operating a body camera looked for the book, with the school principal and classroom teacher present, but it wasn't found. The officer partially covered the body camera lens with his hand and recorded audio.

"Because we were only provided a single image of the illustration, it was important to identify and examine the material that was reported to us," the police department said in a press release. "The Great Barrington Police Department is dedicated to the safety of all people, especially children, and we take all complaints seriously."

In a separate statement, Police Chief Paul Storti apologized "to anyone negatively effected" by the search. The statement went on to say that police actions were not meant to influence school curriculum.

"[I]t is not our role to seek out, censor, or 'ban books' in our schools," Storti said in the statement.

Berkshire District Attorney Timothy Shugrue said in a statement, “The complaint that was filed did not involve criminal activity, therefore, the Great Barrington Police Department and our office have closed the matter and referred any further action back to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.”

Superintendent Peter Dillon said he should have asked police for a warrant. And that it is a school matter.

"We hire thoughtful professionals who make good decisions about what's appropriate to use in their classrooms to afford students opportunities to grow and learn. And they should continue to be supported in doing that," he said.

He said the school district has a set of policies and procedures in place if a parent would like to make a complaint about a book.

"In hindsight, that process should have been followed," Dillon said.

He said the school district is in the process of reviewing certain policies including ones about school and law enforcement relations.

Dillon and School Committee Chair Steve Bannon issued a statement saying, "We want to clearly and unequivocally state that the school district does not support banning books."

School officials had two meetings the first week of January; one with parents and the other with faculty and staff, where Dillon said they "listened to their feedback."

Dillon said the search was unsettling for parents, students and staff and hurtful for people in the gender fluid and queer community.

He said at the next school committee meeting, scheduled for Thursday night, he'll provide a summary of what happened and what the school district is doing to refine and update policies. Dillon said he wants to get feedback at the meeting on "where we may be missing the mark and what we can do better."

"This is going to take a while to rebuild trust," he said. "But but I'm optimistic that we can learn and grow from this."

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.