Cheyenne Parent and Activist Decries School ‘Book Ban’ Policies
Jen Solis helped create the Wyoming Family Alliance for Freedom to push back on school library restrictions
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Dec 07, 2023
Cheyenne mother of three Jen Solis said efforts to restrict students' access to library books are against the Wyoming way. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jacob Gardenswartz)
By Jacob Gardenswartz
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Jen Solis grew up in Maine, but calls Wyoming “her home.” She’s lived in the Equality State since she was 18 and loves everything about it: the landscapes, the people and even the politics, despite her Democratic ideology. In 2022, Solis waged an unsuccessful bid for state representative, losing to the Republican incumbent by just over 200 votes.
But to hear Solis tell it, Wyoming has experienced an “exodus of good folks” who are being replaced by self-described “blue state refugees” she alleges are behind the statewide push to restrict students’ access to library materials. As the issue came to a head in her own kids’ school district, she helped create the Wyoming Family Alliance for Freedom, a group opposing restrictive library policies in Laramie County School District 1 (LCSD1).
“We just believe that in Wyoming, and everywhere in the U.S, free people read freely,” Solis told the Wyoming Truth. “And when that comes under attack, we’re not going to be silent about it.”
Despite the group’s advocacy, the LCSD1 Board of Trustees voted 4-2 on Monday to enact a new policy that significantly limits students’ access to library materials. It replaces the previous “opt-out” approach, whereby parents could prohibit their children from checking out any books they found inappropriate via an online portal, with an “opt-in” approach, in which parents must affirmatively choose to allow their children access to library materials. Ahead of the vote, the Wyoming Truth spoke with Solis about her activism on the issue, and excerpts from that conversation appear below. A similar conversation with Wyoming Superintendent Megan Degenfelder, who supports more restrictive library policies, is accessible here.
How do school library policies impact you and your children?
Solis: I have three kids: a high schooler, a junior high kiddo and a fourth grader. Wyoming schools are the best, you know. My husband and I, we made a decision to make sure our kids grew up in Wyoming and went to Wyoming schools…. It’s been a bit challenging the past few years. But when I think about the teachers and the educators and the principals we’ve interacted with, it’s just always been some of the most wonderful professionals that you can imagine…
Oddly enough, some of this talk of book banning has made [my eldest] a little bit more of a reader, which is kind of fun to me. But yeah, all the teachers, they’ve all made my kids great readers. They explore topics that interest them and don’t interest me, [or sometimes] they explore topics that do interest me. But I think that’s what reading is, right? It’s your own way of discovering the world and interacting with the world and defining where you fit in it. And to put restrictions on that would be such a tragedy.
Superintendent Degenfelder has said explicit books were one of the top issues brought up by parents during her campaign. What do you make of that?
Solis: I believe that represents this sort of very loud, very well-organized, very well-funded — from out of state funds — group of people who are just sort of regurgitating talking points. And they are very good at spreading really pervasive misinformation… They’ve painted this picture of, you know, basically GenderQueer sitting on the library table in a kindergarten or in a fifth grader’s classroom. And that’s just not the case…
What has changed is what kinds of stories are being told. I think that’s the crux of this. If you look at the list that the local “Book Watch” [group] is challenging, something like 42% of the books feature LGBTQ characters or authors… It’s predominantly, you know, minority populations, people of color and LGBTQ folks. So I don’t think it’s the sex that is the problem. I think it’s the stories being told. And that’s troubling to me.
Why do you support the current library materials policy?
Solis: The current policy allows parents complete control. All you have to do, if you are concerned about access to books for your kids, is fill out a real simple form…Right now I could pop onto the internet and log into my kid’s library account. And I can see every single book he has access to. I can look at them, I can read reviews of them, I can see what ages they’re rated at. … But people just are choosing not to utilize it. And instead of just saying ‘I don’t have the time’ or ‘I don’t care enough to look it up,’ they’re saying, ‘Let’s upend the entire system.’…
At the end of the day, it’s going to fail anyway because there will likely be a lawsuit about it, because it just does not fit the standards of the First Amendment that we have established in our country. It’s going to cost the district money, it’s going to cause problems logistically for our teachers, it’s going to make the exodus of our educators worse, it’s going to make recruitment more difficult.
Superintendent Degenfelder has repeatedly highlighted that her new statewide guidelines are entirely nonbinding. Given that, what do you see as their purpose?
Solis: I think it’s just political grandstanding. I do not know the superintendent. I’ve never met her personally… I think she’s a great politician. She’s certainly, you know, very intelligent. However, I do think she is sort of falling for this idea that the loudest people are the ones with all the support, and I just don’t think that calculus is right.
What’s your message to folks who read about “pornography” in schools and get fired up about this topic, even if the truth is far more nuanced?
Solis: Our educators and, particularly, our librarians are highly-trained professionals. Most of them have master’s degrees in their field. They are there to make sure that a diverse student population has a diverse selection of books to choose from as they explore the world…
There’s so many reasons for kids to need a book that is on the so-called ‘naughty list.’ There are also going to be books that aren’t right for every kid. And if you are a parent that wants to protect your kid from books — something that doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, because I don’t think kids need to be protected from books. There’s a lot of scary stuff in the world, but I don’t think books are one of them. But if you are that parent, you have full control.
In Wyoming, we want government as close to the people as possible. And this is an example where Wyoming gets it right. I can say to my school, ‘Do not let my child read the following books because I’m in charge of what he does.’ And they will say, ‘Absolutely.’
If we let out-of-state groups like “Moms for Liberty” or “No Left Turn” or whoever come in here and say, ‘No, we’re gonna have the government decide which books kids can have access to,’ that is not Wyoming. That’s not the way we do things around here. And if we’re not careful, and if we don’t protect this thing that is so precious to us, we can lose it…
In America and Wyoming, we read freely, we pursue our ideas, we pursue our happiness, and our kids can handle books. There’s a lot of things to worry about in the world. But I don’t think, you know, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is one of them.