Hadley’s crusade: A Manhattan Beach councilperson takes aim at two books
by Mark McDermott
Most people present at the January 12 Board of Education meeting in Manhattan Beach knew when Suzanne Hadley approached the podium her remarks were likely to be provocative. Even so, what followed was shocking, even by Hadley’s standards.
Hadley was elected to the Manhattan Beach City Council in 2019 in no small part because of her blunt, somewhat folksy, and extremely articulate manner of speaking. Her husband, David, was a locally well-regarded, one-term Republican Assemblyman in the California legislature from 2014 to 2016, but she had never served as an elected official or entered the political arena in any other way. Hadley, though she possesses an MBA from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, was a stay-at-home mother and housewife for two decades. She proudly campaigned on these qualifications in her council campaign.
“I go back to being the mother of four kids,” Hadley said during her campaign. “I believe in doing the basics well. I will stay in my lane at City Council. I consider police and fire a core municipal service. That is why you live in towns and cities — public safety police, fire, trash, sewers. It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous. Being a stay-at-home mom with an MBA for 23 years is not sexy and not glamorous. I did it willingly, I did it with honor, I did it patiently. I will keep police and fire in-house. I have the financial chops to make it work. Will there be tradeoffs? Absolutely. I’m not going to promise you the moon. I didn’t promise the moon to my kids. I’m used to people not being happy with me, for 23 years. When you are raising a family, you are not looking to be best friends.”
If the lane Hadley spoke of was City Council and the unsexy issues of municipal government, on January 12 she was about to veer far off it in an explicitly sexual way. But it was certainly true that she did not arrive at the podium looking to be friends with the leaders of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District.
Hadley came to the school board to object to a link on the Mira Costa High School site for the Alex Awards — annual awards made by the young adult division of the American Library Association, which recognize 10 books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 to 18,” according to the organization’s website.
Hadley had appeared at the school board a month earlier to object to the Alex Awards link on the MCHS site, and specifically, one of the books recommended on that link, Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age story that has been compared to Catcher in the Rye, but includes a sexual episode and a lot of profane language. This time, Hadley took aim at a graphic novel/memoir called Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, another critically well-received book, which tells the story of the author’s journey as a young adult coming to an understanding of being non-binary (not identifying as male or female) and asexual.
“The school district’s links to the Alex Awards should be removed,” Hadley said. “Alex Awards have failed the test of listing appropriate content for high school students with books like Lawn Boy…Tonight I’m concerned about another book that was recommended directly to students, this time in a 9th grade classroom, by a teacher. This book is Gender Queer, also a so-called Alex Award winner, like Lawn Boy, it’s an adult book not suitable for children.”
Hadley had the book with her, and said she had read it in its entirety, then pointedly asked MBUSD Superintendent John Bowes if he’d read it.
“If not, you should do so immediately,” Hadley said. “And, warning to others in the room — if you have minor children, please consider covering the ears of your children, as my comments include material that some may find offensive.”
Board president Sally Peel interjected at this point.
“Suzanne, our schools serve preschool to Grade 12, and so we frequently do have children that are listening…”
“Oh correct,” Hadley said, cutting off the board president. “That’s why I wanted to make the announcement so the parents had the option to remove their children from the room. Otherwise, I’ll just keep moving…”
According to multiple people present at the board meeting, at least three elementary school students were present, including a little girl (who had performed a science experiment before the school board prior to public comments), seated in the front row about 20 feet to the right of Hadley. The two student board representatives, both Mira Costa students, were seated just to her left.
“Suzanne, I’m just giving you a heads up that we cannot have any inappropriate language in our boardroom,” Peel said.
Hadley spoke through Peel’s warning.
“Gender Queer illustrates and discusses masturbation, dildos, vibrators, sex surgery and fantasies that turn on students,” Hadley said.
“Suzanne, are you done?” Peel asked.
“Fast forward, this is a quote from page 166,” Hadley said.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a quote,” Peel interjected, pounding her gavel in an attempt to cut off Hadley’s remarks. “It’s not appropriate for preschool children.”
Hadley would not be deterred. She read directly from Gender Queer.
Hadley would not be deterred from continuing. She read directly from Gender Queer [edited for this paper].
“We’ve been dating for a month. We’ve made out. We’ve had sex. We’ve moved on to sexting at work. I got a new [sex toy] today. I can’t wait to put it on you. It will fit my favorite [sex toy] perfectly. You are going to look so hot. I can’t wait to have your [profanity] in my mouth and I’m going to give you the [sex act] of your life.’”
“Mrs. Hadley, this is inappropriate,” Peel said.
“Let those words and pictures sink in,” Hadley said. “And how can this happen? That’s it for the inflammatory language. There is an education code that cautions against the teaching of controversial or inflammatory topics, Dr. Bose. Ed Code 60045 says material must be suited to the needs and comprehension at the grade level.”
The California Education Code Hadley referred to reads:
All instructional materials adopted by any governing board for use in the schools shall be, to the satisfaction of the governing board, accurate, objective, and current and suited to the needs and comprehension of pupils at their respective grade levels.
None of the Alex Award books are part of the MBUSD curriculum, or have been adopted by the board in any manner for instructional use. None of the books in question are on any MBUSD library bookshelves, and any student desiring to read the books would require parental consent.
Shawn Chen, the president of the Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, who has also taught English at Mira Costa for 25 years, said in an interview that a 9th grade English teacher did have the book shelved with his own books in a classroom, but did not recommend it to any students. Other district sources said the teacher did reference the Alex Awards to students.
“It’s all about the dog whistle for her,” Chen said. “She doesn’t care about books. She is alerting her constituents with a well-publicized rallying cry of 2024, or whenever her next voting window is targeted.”
Hadley is up for reelection, if she runs, this November. Three school board seats will also be on the ballot. Regarding 2024, national pro-Trump sites such as RedState.com have been at the forefront of efforts to remove books such as Gender Queer and Lawn Boy from school and even public libraries. RedState.com has also specifically taken MBUSD to task for entirely unsubstantiated claims that it teaches Critical Race Theory.
At any rate, Hadley accused the unnamed 9th grade teacher of directly recommending Gender Queer, and argued the MCHS library was hurting students by linking to the Alex Awards on its website.
“The 9th grade English teacher and all teachers should be reminded of their responsibilities under the Ed Code,” she said. “Gender Queer is propaganda in graphic novel form. Children do not need help finding smut or titillating content. Garbage is all around us. Our students do need caring adults to help them find the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world. This is not censorship. This is not book banning. Our district prohibits serving Twinkies, Red Bull and pot edibles on campus. In the same vein, our librarians and teachers should exercise similar discernment in books…”
Hadley at this point was shouted down, both by the board and audience members. She had gone 16 seconds beyond the three-minute time limit given public comments. She appeared to have read the entirety of her statement, although the final words were hard to discern over the din. There was a brief, stunned silence as she left the podium, and then the meeting continued as if nothing had happened.
Hadley’s remarks, however, created a stir throughout Manhattan Beach. Social media roiled with the issue, and at the next City Council meeting, more than a dozen residents addressed what Hadley had said, as did Mayor Hildy Stern. Most were outraged.
Resident Jen Donner said that Hadley’s action may have violated a few laws, including California Penal Code 401 PC, which makes anyone who “willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character” guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
“Regardless of what we believe or how we vote, most parents in Manhattan Beach want to raise our children into well educated, responsible adults that will make the world a better place than it was before,” Donner said. “Recently, a sitting council member, and her small but loud handful of supporters have divided us with a disingenuous spectacle of political theater in front of the school board.”
Donner accused Hadley of creating a distraction that takes away from the tasks of public education, violating City Council rules of decorum and civility, and advocating for an unconstitutional act of censorship
“Worse yet, she misled the community about the contents of a particular book, its accessibility to students, and its prominence in the MCHS curriculum to enrage parents against the school board,” Donner said. “Worst of all, and by her own argument, she harmed an elementary school child [present at the meeting] to score political points, reading in front of her a passage she supposedly strongly believes is inappropriate for children.”
Resident Elyse Gurya said that neither book Hadley objected to was accessible to students and questioned why Hadley would seek the website link referencing the books simply because the books personally offended her. She said a well-established parental consent process is already in place within MBUSD for such books.
“Why even make this demand? A student must already have parental permission to read any book from this list,” Gurya said. “The books do have sensitive content, but only a parent should determine if that content is appropriate for their child. Neither Suzanne or any other individual should impose their personal view on the entire school district.”
Mira Costa senior Garrett Nose said he, and his friends had never heard of Gender Queer until Hadley brought attention to it at the board meeting, after which they tried unsuccessfully to find a copy in the Mira Costa Library.
“Now, if that sexually explicit book had been broadly distributed and discussed in the classroom, I would have been okay with Miss Hadley’s remarks,” Nose said. “However, her remarks were filled with misinformation that not only sows distrust but were also false. I, as a senior, have never seen or read excerpts from that book in the school curriculum, and neither have my friends.”
Nose said he was actually at the December school board meeting and spoke about the need for bipartisanship, cooperation, and unity. Nose happened to be sitting next to Hadley in the audience, and when he returned to his seat she gave him a thumbs up and praised his speech. He said he was appalled a month later when she read sexually explicit material, and argued for the removal of the link.
“Some parents are not okay with this book being read, and other parents would likely consent,” Nose said. “This takes away the whole idea of freedom to read, freedom to gather information. It’s not fair.…I understand and deeply respect everybody’s opinions, and everybody’s belief in freedom of speech. But I also believe that we must hold our public servants to a much higher standard than we sometimes hold ourselves. They’re supposed to exemplify and represent us as a city.”
Fred Taylor, a leader of the We the Parents MB group who has been a vocal critic of MBUSD over Critical Race Theory allegations, praised Hadley’s courage for standing up for other parents who feel exactly as she does. Taylor suggested he and those parents represent a majority.
“A big thank you to Councilwoman Hadley for advocating protection over our kids from obscene sexual material available at MBUSD, and even promoted by one of the 9th grade teachers at Costa,” Taylor said. “I am amazed and quite frankly shocked at a small minority of residents who are more disturbed at her presentation…than the fact that these destructive sexual materials are available to our kids, and even promoted. Prudent oversight of our kids is not censorship. It’s wise parenting.”
Tiffany Wright, who led the Kids Need Classrooms protest movement early in the pandemic that pressed MBUSD to reopen before county and state guidelines allowed it, defended Hadley’s right to speak.
“Yes, thankfully, even public officials have the same First Amendment rights that private citizens do,” Wright said. “A number of social media posts have wrongly portrayed Suzanne’s comments as censorship, or even homophobic. Keeping parents on the board informed is not censorship. Her concerns were clearly the sexual references and graphic sexual pictures in the book, and not the sexuality of the characters. As a proud mom of a gay son, I find this politically motivated misrepresentation offensive and hurtful. The only divisive voice that I hear are those that are shaming Suzanne Hadley at tonight’s meeting, and for the last week on social media.”
After public comments, Mayor Stern addressed the matter.
“While this is clearly an uncomfortable topic, as the presiding officer of our meetings, it’s one that I can’t ignore,” Stern said, taking the unusual step of addressing the issue during the community announcement portion of the meeting.
Stern said that an expectation of behavior is codified in the Council’s rules of decorum and civility.
“As we’ve heard here tonight, and in many email correspondences, that expectation and modeling was breached by Councilmember Hadley at the MBUSD board meeting,” Stern said, referencing Hadley’s refusal to heed the board president’s warnings.
Stern said such codified expectations matter beyond the functionality of public meetings themselves.
“It’s founded on our sense of community, our priorities to work together collaboratively, and our values in modeling acceptable behavior, and includes our respect for each other as we strive to be better and to work better and to make our community better,” she said. “This is not about the substance of what was being advocated for. And it’s not about a political or ideological difference. This is purely about decorum, deference, and respect. And I was shocked and appalled to see how far over the line last Wednesday’s behavior at the school board meeting went.”
“It’s quite frankly an embarrassment to this body that a colleague modeled unacceptable behavior that would not be tolerated here,” Stern said.
Two weeks later, at the February 1 City Council meeting, Hadley responded. Like Stern, she addressed the issue during the community announcement section of the agenda.
To begin, she took a victory lap. The school district, Hadley noted, had removed the links from the Mira Costa library website.
“First, the good news is due to the dedicated efforts of many parents over the past five months, the staff at Mira Costa has removed two inappropriate books from library links, and from the classroom of a 9th grade English teacher. Adult books Lawn Boy and Gender Queer are apparently no longer recommended reading for minor children in MBUSD. This is good news and I want to sincerely thank the responsible parties.“
But Hadley said she had “not so good news” to report, as well, in that she had not received confirmation from Superintendent Bose or the school board that these books would no longer be recommended.
“Parents, please stay vigilant,” she said. “Please continue to ask for a public statement from the board and the superintendent. Without a clear policy recommendation, links that magically disappear one day could just as easily reappear…We need a transparent and durable decision by the school board to protect our children from pornography and inappropriate material.”
Finally, Hadley directly addressed her critics, including Mayor Stern.
“The issue isn’t what I did or how,” she said. “I was the messenger; the issue is the message. Our mayor said I was an embarrassment by choosing to read an obscene passage out loud that we recommend to children in our public schools. I’m proud of the parents who persevered to begin this overdue discussion. We need more parent whistleblowers to speak up about inappropriate material in our schools. Parents’ voices need to be respected. I’ll close with the words of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who valued, as we know, lively political engagement: ‘The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of American government.’
On Tuesday of this week, the links to the Alex Awards reappeared on the Mira Costa website, which had just been redesigned.
This story is the first of two parts.