Rockingham school board deviates from its own book challenge process with temporary ban

This document outlines the procedures for following the RCPS board’s decision to temporarily remove books from the schools, which differs from the district’s existing book challenge process.

In the days after the newly instated Rockingham County Board of Education made two decisions Monday, many teachers, parents and students found themselves in the crosshairs of culture wars, as teachers are now required to remove certain books and report student nicknames.

The two policies adopted at Monday night’s meeting were to temporarily remove 57 books from school libraries until those books are reviewed for their content and to adopt Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policies regarding students’ gender identities.

As first reported by the Daily News-Record, school employees received two emails after the meeting. One asked teachers, librarians and other staff to pull from classroom shelves any books whose titles appeared on a list of 57.

The other email asked all teachers to submit forms to their principals “providing a list of students in their class who are called by a name other than their legal name or a nickname that is commonly associated with their legal name,” according to documents received by a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Citizen.

Many teachers are “heartbroken” and fear for their students, said one RCPS teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. The teacher said the books being removed specifically targeted minority groups or were stories by authors who were a part of minority populations. 

The meeting also prompted a letter to school board members sent from attorneys with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit group that supports a separation of church and state. The letter came in response to a prayer at the beginning of Monday night’s meeting led by School Board Chair Matt Cross. 

That organization has helped other groups in suing school boards that they say violate First Amendment rights.

Book challenge policies weren’t followed

Rockingham County Public Schools already has a policy in place for parents who want to challenge books and other instructional materials that may contain questionable content.

According to the policy, if a parent feels a book is inappropriate, they can download a form from the Rockingham County Schools’ website. Once that form is filled out with the material in question, the parent sends that concern to the school in question. 

When a school receives a form, a committee at the school forms to review the book. If the parent and school are both comfortable with the final decision of the book challenge, the matter is settled. 

If not, the committee’s decision can be appealed to the division level if the parent is not comfortable with the decision. At the division level, another committee forms to review the material and decide. 

This is exactly what happened in September of 2023 when a parent challenged a book in the “Heartstopper” series of young adult books. The committee that formed to review it ultimately voted unanimously that the material was suitable for middle school students, and the book remained on the shelves. That same book has now been pulled from RCPS school shelves because of the new policy the board approved Monday. 

In emails received by the FOIA request by The Citizen, school board member Hollie Cave responded to an email from an English teacher and librarian inquiring why “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig was on the list of books being temporarily removed. 

 “I wish I could say this process was 100 percent without flaw,” Cave wrote in the response, “but the reality is that we should have had a process in place that prevented us from ever having this conversation in the first place. We can’t fix that, but we can move forward and do better in the future.”

Cave went on to say that after she received parent complaints about specific books, she looked into some of them.  

“I did extensive personal research on 48 percent of what was submitted; this was work that should’ve been completed by a committee,” she wrote.  

Cave did not respond to requests for comment. 

But in an interview with The Citizen, RCPS Superintendent Larry Shifflett confirmed that the current policy was not used for the 57 books under temporary review by the board. 

“From my understanding, it sounds like the board’s desire to maybe come up with a different process for that to happen,” he said in response to a question about why the procedures weren’t followed.  

According to emails in the documents received in the FOIA request, Shifflett only received the list of books on Tuesday morning — after Monday evening’s board meeting on Tuesday morning, when he sent a letter to board members requesting it.  

In the emailed response received through the FOIA request, Cave said she compiled the list herself after conversations with parents. 

“Those are books that I researched personally and found them to be disturbing enough to be reviewed,” Cave replied in an email to the superintendent following the Monday meeting. “The ones that are not filled in with green are either complaints from parents because they knew the books were accessible to their children OR parent inquiries where parents asked if these books were available to their child because they had heard or read about it from various sources. So to summarize, green means I looked them up myself after receiving parent complaints; no green means I received a complaint but did not have time to research myself.”

The books are currently being collected from libraries around the county and will be brought to the central office while under review. 

But even that review remains unclear. There is no process in place for how it will go, who will review the books or what the criteria will be whether a book can return to the shelves or if it will be pulled indefinitely.  

“I can say that sitting here today I don’t know exactly what that process will be,” Shifflett said. “The board does have an interest in meeting and having a work session and talking with librarians, and talking to teachers and talking to parents about what that could look like.”

Shifflett said the board plans to review not only the current policy for the book appeal process but also the selection process for media and library collections. 

“It’s not a very big policy, and librarians have a lot of autonomy to put whatever books they want in their library, and you know, they are trained media specialists,” Shifflett said. “Until recently, they’ve had a lot of latitude with what they pick and select, so I think the board is looking to say, ‘OK, what other process could we use maybe to ensure that everything we get on the books doesn’t contain some graphic, sexual, explicit material.’”

Teachers must submit student names for permission

Teachers had until the end of Friday afternoon to submit names of students who use nicknames or other preferred names that do not correlate with the name that appears on their official student records. 

In an email, teachers received a link to a Google doc with three questions: one asking the teacher’s name, one asking for the student’s legal name, and one asking if the name was one that the student “commonly uses.” Teachers were asked to complete a form for each student to which the form was applied. 

Examples listed for names that would need to be submitted included Billy requesting to be called Sally, Jessica requesting to be called John, Jeremy having a nickname of “Tractor,” or Kristin having a nickname of “Giggles.” 

“We are treating all nicknames that aren’t directly related to legal names the same,” Shifflett said. 

Once the names are collected, each student’s parent would need to give permission for teachers and others to use those other names or nicknames. 

Shifflett said school staff tried to make it as respectful to students as possible while completing the process and surmised that most parents would be aware of their children’s preferred names and give permission. 

Others, however, are more worried. 

“I am terrified for the students,” said the teacher who spoke anonymously to The Citizen. “Especially those who are not out to their parents. This process will certainly out them and could put them in a really terrible position.”

Some teachers are refusing to turn in names, according to the teacher. 

Shifflett said that for now, there have been no conversations about any disciplinary actions taken against teachers who don’t fill out the form. 

Shifflett said he thinks principals will most likely have conversations with teachers and treat any refusals on a case-by-case basis, but he said he did not anticipate it being much of an issue. 

Move prompts strong reaction from some parents

While being out and about this week, Shifflett said he didn’t hear much from parents and educators about the board’s decisions, but he said the central office has received several emails. Some emails are in favor of the changes, but most are against the new policies. 

Some parents who spoke to The Citizen say they are deeply troubled by recent decisions of the Rockingham County School Board. 

“Parents should have the autonomy to make decisions about their children’s reading materials, and an established procedure already exists to address specific concerns about books,” said Ashley Gordon-Becker, who has children in the county school system. “Imposing a blanket ban contradicts principles of parental choice and reduces government involvement in schools.”

Gordon-Becker, who was also a member of the committee overseeing the book challenge to “Heartstopper: Volume 3” in September, said the collection of student names could lead to undue trauma for students and that the responsibility shouldn’t fall on teachers and staff. 

Shannon Tierney, a mother of a middle school child in the RCPS system, sent a letter to Shifflett and the school board Tuesday, in which she said she would not be reenrolling her child in RCPS next year. 

“I would prefer my son go to public school, with his friends, in his community,” Tierney told The Citizen. “Monday night we made the decision that he had to leave RCPS. I’ve been emailing with his teachers who wrote him recommendations. They are all struggling and could only tell us how they understood why we would make the move.” 

Another parent, Lynlee Thorne, told The Citizen that she feels “devastated and enraged.”

“Individually and collectively, we have failed our public schools, our students, our teachers and staff to protect an institution that we all rely on, and it’s an essential piece of the fabric of a community,” Thorne said. 

“It’s important and correct and valid for us to acknowledge that transgender and non-binary children are being targeted and harmed; that our teachers and school staff are being placed in a situation they should not be placed in,” Thorne continued. “Books being banned is horrific and unconstitutional. The overarching goal here is even sicker – and that is the sewing of chaos, of fear, as a way to validate the defunding and ultimately the end of our public schools.” 

The parents said they plan to continue to show up to school board meetings, speak out and organize. 

“Every parent who has any concerns needs to speak up,” Tierney said. “[Speak up] about the fact that four people have the power to pull 57 books from our schools based on a list from an organization in another state, without even knowing what is in the books or even checking to see that those books are in the libraries. Those four people are taking away our parenting rights, and if allowed to do this, who knows where it will stop.”

Thorne said all children need to hear from adults that they matter and that they are loved. She emphasized the need to start building community but also to explore legal routes if necessary. 

“We need to be diligent in looking at legal actions we might take,” Thorne said. “The school board has certainly opened itself up and exposed itself to some significant legal vulnerabilities that need to be looked at by members of the community.” 

For his part, Shifflett says he believes that all people want what is best for the students, but how to accomplish that is the hard part. He said he believes that the board does want to listen to the constituents through work sessions to find common ground. 

“I always look for some compromise,” Shifflett said.

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