‘The Virgin Suicides’ pulled from coursework at NSHS, team teach cancelled for Gothic class

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Supt. Michael St. Jean has halted assigned coursework in an English class at North Smithfield High School, stating that one book in the lineup – The Virgin Suicides – “does not reflect the educational mission,” of the district.

The best-selling novel, released in 1993 by American author Jeffrey Eugenides, centers on the lives of five sisters who take their own lives in a single year. Set in Michigan in the 1970s, the novel is told from the perspective of neighborhood boys who witness the events and describes the deaths, while exploring other mature themes such as promiscuity.

The book was assigned in an elective class dubbed Gothic: Horror, Thrillers, taught by English teacher Hannah Cevoli and librarian Jessica Camara. It was made into a movie by Sofia Coppola in 1999, which was also viewed by previous students in the dark literature coursework.

As part of the assignment, students were asked to construct accurate examples from an exhibit the boys made of items related to the girls, described years later, including, a “brassiere becoming as stiff and prosthetic as something a grandmother might wear.”

One outraged parent who asked to remain anonymous to protect their child noted reaction from the school may have been very different if two male teachers had instructed a teenage girl to bring her bra to class.

The assigned work was officially halted on Thursday, March 23 with an email sent to parents.

“This book does not reflect the educational mission of North Smithfield Schools and should never have been included,” St. Jean noted. “Please note this text is no longer to be used and any related assignments have been discontinued with no grade penalty to any student.”

St. Jean added that the course will no longer be, “team taught,” and that administrators will review the class syllabus and determine which readings will be used for the remainder of the semester.

“All current English department texts and media will be reviewed for content, age appropriateness, and balance,” St. Jean added. “All current English department courses will be assessed for content and appropriateness with a determination of whether the course should be continued,  modified, or replaced.” 

“We will be clarifying, and enforcing, media selection guidelines and procedures to be applied across all grade levels and all content areas,” he said.   

The source told NRI NOW that the decision was made after multiple parents contacted the school outraged over the assignment and the book’s content.

“I’m just so disgusted it happened,” the parent said. “It just bothers me that teachers would think this is ok.”

The parent noted that a syllabus for the class was sent home with students but, “I signed it assuming they were teaching approved curriculum.”

By comparison, the parent pointed out that when North Smithfield High School students covered the sensitive topic of suicide in health class, parents received special waivers.

“There is such a high rate of mental health issues with kids these days,” the parent said. “Kids shouldn’t have to read this.”

From graphic descriptions of sexual acts, to detailed accounts of the girls’ deaths the parent said amounted to a book on, “how to kill yourself,” the text was highly inappropriate for the juniors and seniors told to read it, according to some.

“There were times when I had to shut it and walk away because as a parent I was furious,” said the source.

Not all would agree. Academic Exchange Quarterly notes the novel and, “the discussion it evokes provide important teachable moments in American literature,” describing it as, “a text that works well for both high school and college-level English courses.”

Common Sense Media, an organization that reviews and provides ratings for media and technology with the goal of providing information on their suitability for children, rates the coming-of-age novel appropriate for ages 17 plus.

School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said he agrees with the superintendent’s review of the situation and his conclusion.

“It was brought to my attention that there were students who were uncomfortable with the content of the book, the classroom discussion and the required project,” Lombardi said.

And for at least one parent, in this case, there’s a larger issue at play.

“They didn’t clear it with administration,” the parent said.

Asked if the teachers involved were penalized for the decision to include the book, St. Jean said he cannot discuss matters related to personnel.

In the note to parents, St. Jean said the district is currently investigating how the incident could have happened, and “deeply regret(s) that this lack of judgment occurred.”

“We appreciate your patience with us as we further investigate this issue,” he said.

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50 COMMENTS

  1. You all got some dumb parents over there! How moronic to think this book is in any way a manual. It deals primarily with memory and its limitations when attempting to understand other people. It’s one of the best American novels of the past 50 years. The author taught at Princeton for many years.

  2. Disgusting censorship. So disappointed in this school distract—we will be sending our boys elsewhere. This book has serious literary merit, yet they’re banning it instead of worrying about what high schoolers are exposed to online. Fragile liberals.

  3. 1. It’s not a suicide manual. Maybe at least read a summary before going off.

    2. If your objection is any content dealing with suicide let’s also remove Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Sophocles Oedipus (sure Oedipus only gouges his eyes out after killing his dad and marrying his mom–but still can the kids handle that? lol)

    3. Thing is a ban like this doesn’t protect kids from the content–it just makes them curious enough to maybe read it on their own…not in the safe and monitored space of the classroom where questions could be answered and concerns addressed by trusted adults.

    This move to capitulate and accept this challenge was pure cowardice on the part of the administration and I am deeply discouraged by this. School boards have been overwhelmed with book challenges ever since the vitriol around masking has lost relevance. What is truly disheartening is that the majority of school boards have seen through the baseless claims and retained the books. I am surprised and disappointed ours caved, as one of the biggest draws for NS is its quality educational system.

  4. I won’t say yes or no to the banning, but I do know that when a fuss is made over something in a big way, it makes for a more curious audience. It peaks interest even more. Meaning, the kids will seek it out somehow, someway, and see what all the fuss is about. So much of our efforts as parents, will be ignored by the very children you seek to protect. It’s a gamble for sure to raise a family with the very best of intentions. All sides make great arguments.

  5. Academic freedom is crucial to solving problems and cultivating well-rounded individuals.
    What is the NSPS mission if not that?

  6. I don’t know anything about the book. But I think to say that a book that describes a set of suicides is somehow a “manual for suicide” is crazy. It’s like saying Maus or a book about the holocaust or genocide is instructing genocide or the same could be said for any other tragedy.

    • Exactly! This book has been read by NS high school students previously with no complaints from parents or students. Students actually liked it. Teens younger than these 17-18 year-olds have witnessed more ‘suicide’ content that is more harmful to their mental health on Tik Tok. Did this parent speak out against Tik Tok? Does she monitor every movie her child streams in the middle of the night? Does this mom have heart-to-heart conversations about what her child is feeling about life, the world, school, and themselves? Teachers do. Maybe not all teachers, but I can guarantee that English teachers, more than many other subject area teachers, most certainly do. English teachers teach the art of the word. The stories of lives lived and lives dreamed of. To censor books that help teens learn about the many adult emotions they are having and perhaps struggling to understand takes away their ability to navigate the world on their own. it takes away their hopes and dreams for their futures.
      The two teachers who are being thrown under the bus are two of the very best. NS would have a hard time finding comparable replacements. If a parent hasn’t made the effort to get to know their child’s teachers and those teachers’ relationships with their children, then shame on them. They’re with them for 6+ hours for 180 days every year!
      Sorry, this just makes my blood boil! Teachers are NOT the enemy!!

    • Maus is a great example – as teens are reading more graphic novels than ever. I don’t think any “kid” that picks that one up is going to want to become Hitler. I think any book that holds a child’s interest longer than 3 minutes is a great thing, & if it sparks some free thinking for longer than that it’s terrific. I sat on the floor of ns library reading books about witches as a teenager… I was curious & the library met my curious needs. There’s a vast selection of “teen manga” “teen graphic novels”… Really cool stuff & thought provoking. If ns schools can’t go into deep thoughts, go to the library or go to the bookstore kids! Freedom to read whatever you like is available everywhere else!!

  7. To the commenters who think teachers are not qualified to counsel students and have meaningful conversations about issues and emotions that affect the students in their classes have little knowledge of what teachers do every day and the education they receive. Teachers don’t just study a subject. They don’t just teach it. Teaching is a social construct that requires relationship building between teacher and student and between students in a class and school. During an over 35-year career as a K-12 teacher, I can truthfully, but sadly, say that there were many students who had more daily interaction with me than with their parents. I had students who ran away from home but came to school. I had students who when told if they wrote about suicide or drug use in their English journals I was required by law to report it to the counselor and the principal would write about their suicidal thoughts that very day. The parent had no idea, so I was the one who saved them. Teachers nurture, encourage, inspire, and counsel students every day. Reading books that provoke thought and discussion about issues that all teens are facing today is healthy, not harmful. It’s very disappointing, yet not surprising that Superintendent St. Jean would not defend the teachers’ right to academic freedom and students’ rights to read whatever they choose as well. Students can always approach teachers with legitimate reasons for objecting to a book’s topic. Shame on NS administration for kowtowing to the cancel culture of the conservative book banner trend. All they’ve guaranteed is that more students will definitely read the book now but sadly without the enriching discussions that would have ensued under the guidance of two very qualified and seasoned English teachers.

    • Thank you! For all of your hard work. Growing up I experienced a couple of teacher like you and they leave a lasting impact on a students life. Thank you and God bless!

  8. Oh dear. Once again folks who don’t actually read books trying to dictate what the town should read. Most teenagers who have read this book think it’s rather dumb. Ditto for Catcher in the Rye. The characters in both books are such twits, no one would ever want to emulate that lame behavior. That being said, is the only curriculum to be allowed going to be Veggie Tales?!! In all transparency there’s an eggplant in Veggie Tales. Also, when provided with a permission slip, maybe actually read the book before signing it? You can’t sign the slip, then act all shocked and outraged by the content of the book (that you clearly didn’t read).

  9. The movie has been available for kids to watch since 1999, & I’m sure once they were assigned the book they probably watched it. At home, under their parents roof… Alot of things happen under the watchful eyes of parents that go unnoticed. An assignment of reading an “explicit” book goes noticed, but the sexually charged music & TikTok dances & challenges, daily snuff films on Twitter, the nightly news ??? Nope. But let’s ban this book that may open a dialogue for kids struggling to be perfect & go through this thing called life? BURN IT DOWN!!

    • Do you honestly believe kids are saying hey lets watch this movie where a bunch of sisters commit suicide. Yes social media has a huge part in this generations mental health problems but we don’t need to add fuel to the fire. Kids with suicidal tendencies may see this book as a guide. Schools are for education and teachers should only teach what they are qualified to teach. I know these two do not have a degree in psychology. Asking a teenager to bring her or a bra in is abusive. These teachers do not have the background to discuss such a serious subject as suicide. It’s not book banning but what’s suitable for schools and what teachers are qualified to teach.

      • Anybody who has an interest in films, especially young women who admire the director-Sophia Coppola, will watch this movie. The only fuel you want to add to the fire are the books most movies are adapted into. You must be a lot of fun

        • So thats your big response? Your administration of the director? Who cares about the kids mental health as long as we can all appreciate her work. Seriously?????

  10. Hahaha now thats funny!!!! I have a 14 year old and live in NS. So maybe you need to get into the slow lane of this highway ride. I am well aware of ALL the details because I know the kids and parents involved so you may want to get into the back seat and know your audience!

    • Deb, so you are in favor of censorship. Book bans violates the First Amendment because they deprive children or students of the right to receive information and ideas. Second, in 1982, in Board of Education v. Pico , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school board’s decision to remove books from the school library based simply on their content violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. Know the Law.

      • Deborah Ricard did you even read everything I wrote. There is certain material that should not be taught in school by people that are not qualified. Books about suicide should be off limits. These teachers have no idea what these kids are going through they see them for an hour a day in HS. These topics should either be discussed in the home or by a qualified psychologist/psychiatrist not a person with a teaching certificate to review literature. This is dangerous times when it comes to a child’s mental health problems and something like this could very well cause a suicide.

        • I am curious, Deb if you could provide a list of good texts to teach that you think would not touch upon sensitive subjects? Because, honestly as an educator (not in NS) I am hard-pressed to think of any great, classic text that doesn’t deal with trauma, death etc. Great Gatsby, death, The Awakening, Suicide…Lord of the Flies, violent bullying….all classics…all taught in k-12 for many decades with zero complaints

    • Thanks for sharing this Art. An outstanding and well respected teacher called out by a handful of people who choose to remain anonymous. Yes, outrage over books, yet no outrage over guns. Just like Florida in North Smithfield.

      The kids don’t use books as suicide manuals, they use their smart phones. They don’t read books for porn, they use smart phones. They are not indoctrinated into a lifestyle by reading about it. But these parents would have you believe all of this.

      I am glad that I grew up without parental interference in my education, and my parents were teachers. I was never told I couldn’t read (gasp) The Scarlet Letter, or books by Tony Morrison, or watch movies about Ruby Bridges. And now, no music by Dolly Parton and Miley Cyrus!

      If questioned privately, the kids must be ashamed of their parent’s behavior. No wonder some choose home schooling. My life would have been unbearable if my parents berated other educators. We respected teachers. They made a difference in our lives and encouraged life-long learning. That is the true value of an education. Not the tyrannical behavior of a few “Moms for Liberty.”

      • You are right about censorship, cell phones being the trigger and the fact that kids should be able to read what they want to read.

        For someone who is so focused on policy, protocol and procedure how come you are ignoring the fact that it was the school Admin who actually banned the teaching of the book and how the teachers disregarded that order and went rogue and did what they wanted to on their own??? Believe it or not, some books are “off limits” as deemed by the school dept; not by parents complaining. The school dept said this was a no no before any assignment was received by a student.

        To Art and Mary – Should the teachers be reprimanded for delivering curriculum that was not approved ( in fact, actually deemed inappropriate by school admin) to their students??? A simple yes or no will do. For two people who are hellbent on following rules and protocols in the town, where the the usual outrage for the violation??

        And what does guns have to do with any of this??? Stay on topic. Or are you having a “moment”

        • Yes, if that is what transpired she should be disciplined. But just like when I was on the SC, that is a matter for the superintendent/administration to decide. I think the main point here is the act of banning any literature. Combined with the fact that these are either adults or on the cusp of adulthood, and that the syllabus for an elective class was pre-approved by the parents, the entire thing was silly. Banning a thing only serves to bring more attention to it…good or bad. These aren’t young adults with issues, they are taking an elective which indicates they are close to fulfilling or have fulfilled all their graduation requirements. If they have been that diligent about their courses, I’m sure they can handle any book you hand them.

          And why would you disparage being hellbent on following rules? The town government has a long history of ignoring constituents and doing what a few folks in power desire. I’m sure many towns do actually. But I’m curious as to why you feel that following rules is something to be called out in a negative way?

          As for Mary’s reference to guns, I think any reference to guns/schools in 2023 is MORE than justified. We are a decade past Sandy Hook. How innocent I was to think in 2012 when 27 children lost their lives something finally might change. So yeah…bring up education with me and it will inevitably lead to gun policy. We as a country have chosen our guns over the safety of our children. Since Columbine, 175 children have died in mass shootings at school. We have “active shooter” drills in nearly every school in America but the only other action we take is offering thoughts and prayers to the victims.

          • Art. I have always admired your opinions, your professional manner and the ability to debate issues with grace.

            Thank you for agreeing that the teachers should be disciplined for violating the districts policies and protocols. We can agree there.

            Whether the book is appropriate it or to read (in fact I do think 17 is age appropriate) is not up for us to debate. The NSSD already had had a policy in place that this book was not to be used in this class curriculum. Period – end of story – that is the issue. No one called in for a ban of the book, no ones looking to ban books. Heck, we should all ban together to ban cell phones before any book!!

            It’s awful what gun violence has done to our schools. Who is going to be the 1st district to hire armed guards to be on site. We do it at banks, airports etc. Why not with our most precious asset – the children of the future??

            • Very much appreciated. I earnestly try to see all sides. Just like I did on every board/appointment/election in town. I don’t believe all people in town are malicious or bad. They have their views and many don’t align with mine…however, when I served, it was my responsibility to listen. I took that seriously and still do. I will say..as I’ve said before…most boards in town have no power and are futile wasted efforts which is why I will never give another hour of my time to town service.

              With that said, I will still criticize those in power. I was on the board that hired Mike St. Jean and I think most of this is an internal matter. However, I have seen the movie and listened to the book. I would have no concerns allowing my kids to read it back at that age. I did my job as a parent and still do.

        • It would appear that this same book had been read by previous students over the years. I saw no clarification that it had not been, nor any reference to “rogue teachers.” Mr. St. Jean and Mr Lombardi provided comment after being unduly harassed by many of the same individuals that called for the banning of certain books last year.

          By all accounts, this teacher is outstanding and held in high regard by her students, as noted by Mr. Bassett. It’s time we start standing up for education, rather than tearing education apart.

          And as for your reference to my having a “moment,” maybe we as a country should prioritize what actually is killing our students. Is it death by suicide because it is mentioned in a work of fiction? Or is it American obsession with guns?

          • Mary

            1 – Perhaps you are having a moment… Re-read St. Jeans comments above “ In the note to parents, St. Jean said the district is currently investigating how the incident could have happened, and “deeply regret(s) that this lack of judgment occurred.”

            2 – 4 trolls commenting on “Reddit” does not make an outstanding, highly regarded teacher. Reddit is no different than the trolls here.

            3 – The issue is the teachers violated the district / school policy and Mr. St. Jean now has to clean it up. That’s the issue. Period. End of story. It’s black and white. Not up for debate.

            4. What’s happening with guns in our country and schools is atrocious. However, this article is about the issue with the teachers violating the district rules. Not guns.

            Toddlers try and scream and re-direct the situation when they know they are wrong.

            Perhaps as a country, and as adults, we can be honest with ourselves and just say when we are wrong or when something wrong has happened; regardless of what political party we think the parties involved are associated with.

            • With all due respect, Roland, St. Jean’s vague comment in no way confirms that the book had been ‘not approved’ or that the teachers had violated any policy. That’s just St Jean not standing up for his teachers and giving in to parental hysteria.

              • As quoted from above – “This book does not reflect the educational mission of North Smithfield Schools and should never have been included,” St. Jean noted. “Please note this text is no longer to be used and any related assignments have been discontinued with no grade penalty to any student.”

                Maybe one would read that as “common sense” tells us this book shouldn’t have been brought into the classroom by the teacher(s)

                I don’t think there is a black
                & white policy that says “don’t bring porn into the classroom” – by your logic, there would be no violation if a teacher did.

                It’s ok to say this was poor judgement!!! Come on, yes you can do it!!

  11. What a sad state the world is in when legal adults (seniors in high school) can have all the sex they want legally, join the military and kill a bunch of people, & watch their friends get killed – but can’t have discussions about either.

    …and people wonder why modern kids can’t deal with their feelings and emotions.

    • Actually the issue is the teacher(s) chose to teach something that wasn’t approved in the curriculum. In fact, this same teacher was told years ago this book was not appropriate and in compliance with the district standards. They knowingly chose to teach content that wasn’t approved.

      So I guess by your logic the school admin and superintendent are wrong and the health teacher should use PornHub and YouPorn to teach sex Ed.

      Maybe the business teacher should show OnlyFans pages…..

      I consider myself to be an open minded democrats but I seriously cannot believe people would defend these actions. Sad times for our town and our country.

      • This is not an elementary school class. This is an advanced literature class for students who are, or are close to being legal adults. The book talks about sex, and discusses suicide. It’s not a manual for either. These are things that students of this age experience and see every single day. There is literary merit to this book, as it dives deep into emotions and experiences of the people in the story. It’s not glorifying anything that’s going on. It’s like saying a 2 hour drama film with a 2 minute sex scene is pornographic film

        Your argument about the health teacher using online porn to teach sex ed is disingenuous. The content on those sites is strictly pornographic, and serves no educational or artistic, or literary purpose.

        In fact, a good sex ed teacher would reference pornography and would discuss how many of the things on those sites are actually examples of unhealthy sexual relationships.

        We’re not talking about 9 year olds here. We’re talking about literal adults. If literal adults can’t talk about and learn about these things, then when should they?

        Wanna guess what happens when you cut completely sheltered kids loose into the real word when they turn 18?

      • Actually, your ‘facts’ are incorrect. Students have read this book in previous years. With no student or parent complaints. Your disgust is totally misplaced.

    • No, they absolutely should not. To reacquaint myself with the book, I watched the movie tonight, in it’s entirety. The movie made me think about young people, especially young women that were overly protected by parents, without knowing how to properly engage in the outside world. Their instability and emotional stress led to their inability to negotiate relationships with peers.

      The article indicates that this class was an elective and suitable for ages 17 and up. In addition, an excellent book for college prep students. As a taxpayer in the town, I expect each parent to make their own decisions regarding curriculum, not being dictated to by Deb G and those who wish to remain anonymous.

      I would expect that those students who wished to take the class might have learned from the educated discussions that followed. I would also recommend the book to parents and students that want to take a closer look at young adulthood and navigating differences of thought.

      Unfortunately, the book banners are back in the classroom, dictating their terms for educational standards. Books don’t hurt children, adults that dictate what can be taught do.

      • So what you’re saying Mary is that Mr. St. Jean is wrong in his statement and that it’s ok for teachers to go rogue and decide to teach and introduce content that “out of bounds” – by the districts standards??? Is that correct ?

        I agree with kids learning different subjects, controversial matter and provocative thought. And you are right, they are ALMOST adults. Until then, the school rules follow. And like he said, “this shouldn’t have happened and he DEEPLY regrets it”

        Typical re-direct of the issue at hand that the teachers went rouge (regardless of what the content is or isn’t). I guarantee you if this was a trump book, you’d want their heads on a platter!!

        I’ve never seen someone who pretends to be such an expert on everything!!

        Oh and “re-acquainting” means I’ve never actually read it. LOL

        Why don’t you let parents worry about their own kids and you find something else to do….

      • Mary these teachers are NOT licensed professionals in psychiatry and what they did could cause more home to someone who may be suffering from mental health problems. No teacher is qualified to teach anything but what they were trained in college to teach and that is the basics. What qualifications do they have to discuss suicide, gender identity, LGBTQ or anything else other than Math, Science, English and history? It’s absurd for anyone to believe this is OK and not harmful if not handled by a licensed professional and a teaching certificate does not make them qualified. These same teachers were warmed last year but took it upon themselves to go against administration and you think they should be trusted with our children. It was your choice to watch the movie or even read the book but these kids had no choice it was not an elective assignment. This is why my son will never attend public school again!

      • Mary lets discuss your comment about how each parent should have their own choice about curriculum. What choice? Parents are not given a choice and have no access to the curriculum. Like Roland B said teachers are going rogue. Their lessons are not approved curriculum so I will ask again what choices are we given? I am a parent and when my child was 10 the health teacher thought it was a good idea to teach my son what different emojis meant like an eggplant, peach and others. Also about what a pedo is and what they do to children. He was 10 and I was never given the opportunity to say no. Also the survey at age 12 asking if he felt more or less feminine or masculine. If he took oxycodone and other drugs. Seriously unless you have a child in the current school system you have no idea. Someone needs to stand up and protect our children.

        • Deb, you say these things like they are so horrifying. But protection is not granted through ignorance. It is granted through being informed. I do have a child in the school system and I’m aware that some kids may not tell us everything, even when we trust them and they trust us. So schools conduct surveys to get a sense of what issues they need to look out for and provide support for. I also don’t think each parent should have their own choice…but in the case of this particular ban it feels like a vocal minority of parents who have a deep distrust of educators. If this distrust is that deep maybe the public school system is not the best options for those families.

          • Great comments TJ. And for those parents who so distrust the public schools, they will quickly learn
            they have much less control in a private school. If you choose to attack as a few of these parents have done, they and their child will be asked to leave. I saw evidence of this in the private high school I attended. You don’t like it, leave. Unfortunately, public educational systems do not have this option.

  12. What book is next, lord of the flies, 1984, to kill a mockingbird, of mice and man, the grapes of wrath. The Great Gatsby. Maybe we should not study Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves. I am getting tired of censorship because by restricting information and discouraging freedom of thought, censors undermine one of the primary functions of education: teaching students how to think for themselves.

      • Students were asked to recreate something from the book. In the book, a character created some kind of totem that involved a bra.

        The teacher did not ask a student to bring in HER bra. A student could have brought in A BRA (as in purchased from Savers for $3) for the project.

        If the sight of a bra makes a kid uncomfortable, they’re going to have a real bad time when they go to mall.

        • Oh please stop trying to justify this. These kids are minors and this is unacceptable. The content of the book and asking girls to bring in props are a big NO for most parents. This is not educational in any way!

          • Juniors and seniors range in age from 17-19 years old. They are literally adults. The age of consent in RI is 16. If you can legally have sex, you are old enough to also read about it.

            I also don’t get the hang up of being asked to recreate a symbol from the book. I graduated from high school almost 15 years ago, and we read a book focusing on adultery and sin (The Scarlet Letter). We literally had to create a symbol representing a sin we committed, and wear it all day.

            • You must be one of the teachers? If I was one of the parents I would lawyer up and stop this from ever happening again to another child. Im sure they wont have a problem finding a QUALIFIED psychiatrist as an expert witness to explain how this is harmful to a child who may be suffering from mental health problems.

              • stay in your lane deb. you dont even have kids in the school system. once again commenting on issues you dont have all the facts on.

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