MUSKEGO, Wis. — Concerned students, teachers, and community members gathered outside a Muskego-Norway School Board meeting demanding answers over a book that wasn't approved for class.
The Asian American Pacific Islander (APPI) Coalition of Wisconsin organized the "teach-in," which was held during the board's meeting on Monday evening.
Last month, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine was under review but not approved for a 10th Grade AP English class.
The 2003 novel tells the stories of Japanese-Americans forced from their homes and into internment camps during World War II.
According to members of the coalition, Muskego-Norway school curriculum committee members made comments the book is "too sad," didn't have an "American perspective," and didn't present "both sides."
"It's written by a Japanese-American about Japanese-American characters, so how is it [perspective] missing?" said Kabby Hong, 2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.
Hong was a featured speaker at the rally. Born in California to Korean immigrants, he's been teaching English for more than 20 years.
Hong wants school boards to trust the teachers that put forth book selections, but he's not against the board having a role.
"If you're going reject a book, you need to have good reasons, rooted in best practices, and rooted in research, and rooted in what's happening with the college board and AP, to make sure your decision is not based on political bias or personal ideology," said Hong.
Hong had asked to speak at the meeting but was denied. The school board said public comment is not allowed on items that are not on the agenda or by people who live outside the district. Hong lives outside the district.
After the board meeting, TMJ4 News spoke with Muskego-Norway School Board member Kevin Zimmermann.
"It's not accurate, not being portrayed correctly," he said of the group protesting the board's decision.
According to Zimmermann, the book reached the education committee (three of seven school board members), but they never had a chance to vote.
He said the curriculum committee — which chooses books and sits outside the board — requested it be sent back for re-review after it was flagged for a potential policy violation.
"From what I heard is, somebody from the administration told the [curriculum] committee to pick a book from a non-white author. You can't have that. That's a protected class. You can't discriminate against a race," said Zimmermann.
He said in a follow-up email that "he's not referring to the white race as protected, but more so that race is protected under federal and state discrimination laws." Laws, he said, the school district follows.
Zimmerman said Otsuka's book is now being re-reviewed by the curriculum committee and may be resubmitted to the education committee.
A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesperson said there is no statewide policy when it comes to districts selecting books for any subject. It is all up to individual school boards.
Heated words were exchanged briefly between a small group of people against the "teach-in" and some of those there to support Otsuka's book.
The AAPI Coalition of Wisconsin bought 100 copies of When the Emperor Was Divine to give to anyone who came out.
"It's just so well written. And Japanese internment camps were not something I learned about when I was in school," said Emily Sorensen, who was there to hand out books.
Those gathered don't believe this is simply a procedural issue.
"It reopened an old wound for so many Asian Americans of having their American identity questioned. Of being asked where are you really from, because the answer of Chicago or LA is just not an acceptable answer," said Hong.
Correction: This article reported Zimmermann as saying the education committee rejected the book, sending it back to the curriculum committee for re-review. However, according to Zimmerman, the curriculum committee requested the book back following a potential policy violation. The board also has seven members, not five, as originally reported.