By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
After removing the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” from Harrisonburg High School’s library shelves last week, Superintendent Michael Richards said he is assembling a special committee to review his decision.
Richards said he has heard from many parents asking him for clarification on the decision, which came after some people complained the material was too sexually explicit for some children. Some of those who have contacted the school district worried that Richards’ move to unilaterally remove a book without going through the challenge process could be a slippery slope.
Local and state library officials confirmed to The Citizen that it’s a departure from procedure for a book to be pulled from the shelves without going through a formal challenge process.
Richards said school district staff will put together a diverse committee of parents who have children of all ages, a librarian, a mental health professional, as well as a director in the department of instruction who is well-versed in children’s literature, among others.
In addition to reviewing Richards’ decision, the committee also could provide some recommendations on how the school division can be more proactive in the future to avoid having potentially sexually explicit graphic novels on school library shelves.
“How can we provide graphic novels and avoid censorship but at the same time be conscious of school board policy, student code of conduct, and the law?” Richards said. “How can we do that?”
He said part of that might include a more rigorous preliminary screening process for graphic novels. “Gender Queer,” for instance, came to school librarians from the publisher, which had marked the books as appropriate for children ages 16 and up.
The issue of removing books, including “Gender Queer,” has emerged in school districts in other parts of Virginia and the country in recent weeks. Richards made his decision last week, days after some speakers aired their concerns during the public comment period of the Nov. 4 school board meeting. Several mentioned sexually explicit content in some books, including “Gender Queer.”
‘It equates to censorship’
Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, said when a book is removed without any formal challenge, “we have a lot of concern.”
“Because that opens the doors to any book being removed for any reason without any challenge,” Varga siad. “And each of those books on the shelves is generally there for a reason. Especially in a school, it’s earned its place through a materials selection and collection development process.”
She said while the Virginia Library Association represents public and academic libraries in the commonwealth, school libraries are represented by the Virginia Association of School Librarians — but the challenge process is largely the same. After someone makes a formal challenge to a book on the selves, that sets into motion procedures to evaluate the book’s content. If those procedures aren’t followed, it presents a major concern, she said.
“And it’s to make sure that democracy is followed, and that we have the ability to learn, from one another and from books and materials,” Varga said.
She said it also presents an intellectual freedom issue. In her 20 years of involvement with Virginia libraries, she said she’s seen “a range of challenges occur.”
“But in the last couple of months, we’ve seen a lot more disregard for policies and procedures from people’s own agencies that is just troubling,” Varga said.
She said that while it might be determined that “Gender Queer” is in fact inappropriate for the school’s library, it’s important for that to be decided through the review process and not by a single individual.
“And that’s fine, that’s what challenges are supposed to do,” Varga said. “But just unequivocally pulling a book from the shelf just because it’s making you feel uncomfortable is really troublesome. And it equates to censorship.”
She also pointed out that the book in question is a real story that happened to the writer.
“We’re talking about ideas, concepts and experiences that are real and are happening to people in our country, and we want to make sure that people have access to books that reflect their experiences,” Varga said.
‘Counter to what libraries stand for’
Varga said that while the VLA typically sees an uptick in submitted challenges following Banned Books Week, which was during the last week of September this year, “there are a lot of things at play right now.”
She said that when these challenged books have gotten a lot of exposure recently, they end up circulating through social media and become talking points.
The issue also relates to governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s campaign which criticized former governor and opposing candidate Terry McAuliffe’s views on parents involvement in their childrens’ education, and promised to ban critical race theory from being taught in Virginia schools.
“I think it’s all sort of swirling into a larger thing,” Varga said.
Mary Golden Hughes, who works as the director of advancement at Massanutten Regional Library, said in an email to The Citizen that the public library functions differently from school libraries.
However, a challenge works in a similar way. A person can complete a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials” form. The challenged material is then reviewed by a committee of professional library staff who decides whether it will stay in circulation. If the challenger is unsatisfied with the decision, that person can appeal to MRL’s Board of Trustees.
Golden Hughes said that to her knowledge, only one book has been elevated to the Board, which she said was about 15 years ago “when ‘A Photographer’s Life’ by Annie Leibovitz was deemed by our Trustees to be a valuable artistic contribution to our collection and community.”
She said there is no history of “banned” books at MRL, “as this is counter to what libraries stand for.”
‘We have to trust kids’
Ashley Saunders, who runs a Facebook group called “Parents and Allies of LGBTQ Students in RCPS/HCPS,” said that while this is a complex situation, “we have to be really careful about who we’re giving the power to to make these decisions.”
“Especially for LGBTQ youth in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, sometimes books are the only place they see themselves,” Saunders said. “And we have to trust kids, and we have to trust the people who are curating the book for their classrooms and the libraries to understand what is appropriate.”
She said while she views Richards as an ally and understands he made the decision based on what he believed was best for the students, “there still needs to be a checks and balances system.”
She also said that there needs to be a clearer definition for what is inappropriate, because that might vary from person to person.
Saunders said letting the conversation be decided by those who might be seeking to alienate the LGBTQ+ community is heading “towards a very dark place for the queer students of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.”
“Trans kids are getting their rights to use the restroom and change their name and live fully who they are so now they’re going to start removing books from the library because they’re not winning the war to keep trans children in the closet,” Saunders said. “And so this is the next step.”
Setting a precedent with a decision like removing “Gender Queer” from the high school library also sets the stage for a future superintendent who might not be as favorable towards the LGBTQ+ community, Saunders said.
“We need to hold each other accountable for decisions we are making when it comes to the health and wellness of students,” Saunders said. “And it can’t fall in one person’s hands. Even if this book is inappropriate, there needs to be a checks and balances system in place to determine that.”
Saunders said her son benefited from reading affirming literature.
“Reading books about trans youth really helped him feel less alone in his transition in a very small town,” Saunders said. “And so taking queer books off of shelves is just creating one more hurdle for a very marginalized community that is just fighting for the right to be seen, and for basic human rights.”
She also said this marks an opportunity to address inadequate sexual education in school and at home.
“Parents can’t pretend that high school age children are not in a place where there is content everywhere,” Saunders said. “But I do know that especially queer kids, a lot of them are not getting sex education at home. They’re not getting sex education through the school system because there is a huge lack of LGBTQ education and traditional sex education, and so a lot of them look to porn, or they look to literature.”
Meanwhile, the Friendly City Safe Space and Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton are working on their own resource libraries, Saunders said, adding she hoped other churches woud do the same for their youth.
She said she hopes people continue to donate literature to help make sure “those resources are available,” adding that books represent “a great way to make sure that queer voices are not being erased.”
“And also being an open and vocal ally at home and teaching your children to do the same,” Saunders said. “Because this is who it ultimately affects.”
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