County school board temporarily banned 7 books it doesn’t stock on library shelves

(File photo)

The Rockingham County School Board voted this month to temporarily remove 57 books from its library shelves — except seven of those aren’t in any of the county schools’ libraries.

Those books’ inclusion on the list is an effort to keep those books from coming in, school board members said. And board member Sara Horst said it allows for uncertainty of whether those books are on the shelves in individual classrooms, which don’t have an organized database like the school libraries do.

Here are the seven titles, with links to each book’s Amazon description:

The school board is preventing these books from coming in and temporarily removing others on the list while it creates a new review process for books. The policy will evaluate books for fitness based on allegations of sexual content, violence and profanity.

Many of the books on the full list include LGBTQ topics or are written by authors who are part of minority populations. One Rockingham County Public Schools teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told The Citizen many teachers are “heartbroken” and fear for their students.

In a press release on Friday, board chair Matt Cross and vice chair Sara Horst said existing Policy IIAC only applies to instructional material. Library books are not explicitly mentioned in that policy; however, it has been used to challenge books in the past. Cross and Horst said there is no policy in place to evaluate library or classroom library books — that’s the new policy they intend to craft in the coming months.

“Once we have a policy for acquiring library and classroom materials, and the current policy about the process that will be used to review challenged books is revised, the titles we temporarily removed will be reviewed,” they said in the statement. “It is possible that some may be returned to our libraries and classroom libraries.”

Jackie Lohr, the only board member to vote against the temporary removal, said in an email to The Citizen that multiple books she’s read recently have had questionable portions but are not on this list. If the board was being proactive, she said, those titles “definitely should have been on the list.” She did not specify the titles she referred to.

“Cherry-picking the books to remove only serves to give parents a false sense of security and cannot replace the involvement of the parent. I also cannot in good conscience remove books that I have not personally vetted,” Lohr said in her email. She said she received the list about a week prior to the meeting and was unable to read them all. “I do not feel like the school division is well served by me removing specific books from libraries, but is best served by creating a meaningful policy to guide our staff, who are experts in literature and are trained to know what is appropriate for our students, who are on many different reading levels, in making these decisions.”

Cross did not respond to specific questions from The Citizen regarding the preemptive ban. Horst declined to answer questions. Board members Hollie Cave, who proposed the motion, and Ashley Burgoyne did not respond to interview requests.

Targeted at diversity representation

While the Rockingham County School Board’s temporary ban largely follows several others statewide, some say a preemptive ban on books that aren’t in school libraries is unwarranted.

Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, equated it to “a suppression of ideas and concepts.” 

While as a librarian she celebrates the right of parents to challenge books as part of a robust library collection process, she warned against removing or preemptively committing not to buy certain books before reading and researching them fully.

Some of the books were flagged by informal parent complaints and inquiries. According to emails obtained by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information Act request, Cave, who compiled the list, said she researched 48 percent of them herself but that the compilation process was not “100 percent without flaw.”

To remove or bar books from school shelves without due process or following current policies is “really dangerous” and “very concerning,” Varga said. 

She said she sees correlation between Rockingham County’s list and other lists of banned books that have emerged in other districts in Virginia and the United States in recent years. Many of those books center on telling the stories LGBTQ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) people, Varga said. 

“It seems to be part of a greater goal to limit people’s access to other people’s lived experiences,” Varga said.

She also noted some of these books have been around and in school libraries for many years: titles such as “The Kite Runner,” a 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini; “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein and published in 2008; “The Bluest Eye,” a 1970 novel by Toni Morrison; and “Forever…” by Judy Blume, published in 1975.

“It’s difficult to understand, why now? Why suddenly, this year, would this be an issue?” Varga said. “Those books were selected and curated by professional, education librarians and library workers. There’s a reason those books have been used, some of these for decades, as instructional material or available in your libraries.”

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