One of several identical signs placed around the Capitol Monday by an unnamed group pushing to remove some books from public school libraries. Photo by Ian Karbal.

The Capitol was busy Monday, as state lawmakers met for some of their final public discussions before the legislative session begins in January. In chambers and committee rooms, they gathered to hear about abuse in state-run psychiatric facilities, the state’s budget priorities, and the overburdened foster care system. 

But around the Capitol, they were met with posters posing a provocative question: “Kid porn in WV Schools?” 

Next to the Senate chambers, several members of an unnamed group using the hashtag #ProtectOurChildren sat at a table. They talked with passing lawmakers and handed out flyers showing explicit and cartoon-like illustrations of sexual activity. They said West Virginia kids could access the drawings in public school libraries. 

Post-it notes on the group’s posters promised more information to lawmakers who could attend an open meeting held, oddly enough, in the Agricultural Commissioner’s personal office, but only three showed up to hear from the group’s leader, South Charleston resident Dennis Westover. 

At the meeting, Westover showed slides that included a children’s book about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate a Louisiana elementary school, a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg aimed at young adults, and an illustrated book starring a child wearing androgynous clothing. These topics, Westover said, should be banned because he finds them objectionable, uncomfortable, or antithetical to his faith.

“I am a Christian and my worldview is no longer expressed in the schools,” Westover said. “I don’t want the LGBTQ worldview expressed in the schools either.”

Westover had a small, but receptive audience who were eager to discuss how to message book banning efforts to the public. 

“You gotta be careful, because as soon as you try to ban something, you’re declared racist or whatever and all that stuff,” said incoming state Senator Jay Taylor, R-Preston. “We’d be torched if — we can’t do book banning. It’s gotta be about ‘age appropriate.’”

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, incoming Sen. Jay Taylor, R-Preston, and Dennis Westover (left to right) discuss banning books in Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt’s office. Photo by Ian Karbal.

On a local level, multiple West Virginia schools and libraries have come under fire for material made available to young people based on themes of sexuality and race. Nationally the free expression nonprofit PEN America has found that books are being banned from schools and libraries at a record rate, most dealing with LGBTQ themes.

“We’re seeing this narrative here in West Virginia and we’re seeing it nationally,” said Eli Baumwell, advocacy director at the West Virginia ACLU. “There are some people who have forgotten that we have a fundamental right to expression.”

Westover’s group hasn’t yet put forward actual legislative language for their proposals. But once they do, the bill will need a sponsor and support from leaders of the GOP supermajority to get on a committee agenda and, ultimately, the floor.

The three lawmakers who showed up for the planning meeting — Taylor, Sen. Michael Azinger, R-Wood, and Del. Margitta Mazzochi, R-Logan — don’t have that kind of power or position. But at least one powerful lawmaker was involved: Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, arranged the meeting after being contacted by Westover. Rucker is the former Senate education chair who is expected to be put in charge of a new select committee dealing with charters and other alternatives to public schools.

Rucker said she supports the notion of banning “explicit and obscene” material in schools, but was unaware Westover’s group also wanted to ban books about subjects they find distasteful.

“The role of the Legislature is not picking out curriculum, not dictating and micromanaging the instruction, but there should be parameters,” Rucker said. “It’s gotta be material that is appropriate to the age.”

Last year, however, she was the lead sponsor of a bill that could have restricted conversations around similar materials in West Virginia public schools: the measure passed both chambers but didn’t become law on a procedural issue. Rucker contended that her bill was never intended to stymie such conversations entirely. She also said that she doesn’t believe there is anything inherently inappropriate about, for example, LGBTQ issues, but that a line should be drawn around descriptions of sex and sexual organs. 

In the meeting earlier this week, Sens. Taylor and Azinger discussed how to frame a potential school book banning bill. One suggestion was writing a bill making sure all material in schools is “age appropriate.” Another involved adapting the language of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that outlawed discussions of gender and sexuality in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, and in any way that isn’t “age appropriate” for older grades.

Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, said she would consider addressing sexually explicit or obscene material in school libraries “if I see evidence that it is a problem in West Virginia schools,” though she noted she had not yet seen that evidence.

“I’m not aware of any meaningful discussions among the Republican caucus about any potential bills to regulate the content in public libraries in the entire two years I’ve been there,” said House of Delegates spokesperson Ann Ali in an email, adding that House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Education Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, wouldn’t be commenting on the issue. Last year Hanshaw, Ellington and Grady, as well as Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, voted for Rucker’s bill that could have censored classroom discussions.

While leadership remains mum, other lawmakers seem open to the idea of considering an effective book ban. Sen. Jack Woodrum, R-Summers, had concerns after speaking with Westover’s group, and said he wouldn’t be surprised if the subject came up in the Legislature.

“If you had the news on this morning, you’d have seen a discussion of kids’ books sort of promoting delaying puberty and sex changes and that kind of thing,” Woodrum said. “The topic’s gonna be around: what is the content aimed at young children?”

Dennis Westover presents slides he finds objectionable in a meeting with lawmakers in Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt’s office. Photo by Ian Karbal.

Westover, the man spearheading the grassroots effort to bring the issue to the attention of lawmakers, made national headlines last year after getting arrested weeks after the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C. outside the then-fenced off Capitol building with a handgun, his will, and a list of lawmakers from a group called “stop the steal.” He said he had no intention to harm anyone and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for carrying an unlicensed pistol. His guilty plea was withdrawn after he completed the terms of a deferred sentencing agreement with community service.

Back in the Capitol, Westover ended his presentation to the lawmakers and Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt. All said they were supportive of his efforts.  

“I’m with this guy, but it’s not like — this has nothing to do with my office,” Leonhardt said. “I don’t want this tied to the Department of Agriculture.”

As he left his small meeting, Westover was elated.

“Now I have a couple of senators,” he said.

While Westover was making his presentation, upstairs, other members of his group lobbied passing lawmakers. When interims ended, Westover estimated they reached roughly half of the state’s senators and a quarter of delegates.

As he wound his way through the Capitol halls, back to the table where his volunteers were handing out materials to lawmakers, he was recognized by Del. Kathie Crouse, R-Putnam. The two embraced, and as Crouse walked away, Westover asked, “Can I list you as with us, that it’s time to get rid of this junk in schools?”

Crouse said yes. Later, she said “Our children need to be taught the main subjects. They don’t need to be taught an agenda.” 

Correction: This story was updated on Dec. 16, 2022, because a previous version incorrectly stated that the drawings on the flyers given to lawmakers came from books available in a Wood County public library, and not a school.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.