At calmer meeting, RCPS board seeks to clarify approach to school library books

A person holds the book "Drama"
During a student-led walk-out last week, a Spotswood High School student holds up one of the 57 books the school board has temporarily banned. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

In its first work session dedicated to crafting policies for selecting — and challenging — school library books, the Rockingham County School Board addressed the intense backlash it’s received since its temporary removal of 57 books earlier this month. 

Board members also discussed a tentative timeline for the policymaking process and floated several paths the policies could take. More than 50 people attended the meeting, including about 10 school librarians, but the meeting was much calmer than last Monday’s raucous full board meeting.

Tuesday’s work session didn’t include a public comment period, but board members spoke to the audience to clarify their reasoning behind the temporary ban and points of contention.

Board members defend temporary removal of library books, address backlash

Board chair Matt Cross emphasized the decision isn’t meant to target librarians or specific topics, like LGBTQ communities. The board has been hit with allegations of targeting LGBTQ students with the temporary book ban and adopting Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policies, and Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, told The Citizen many school book bans seem to be “part of a greater goal to limit people’s access to other people’s lived experiences.”

Many of the titles on the temporary ban list include LGBTQ characters and storylines.

“Whether you’re gay or lesbian, trans, or whatever it may be, or heterosexual, there’s still a standard that we have to have. You don’t get a pass just because you’re heterosexual on what you put in a book,” Cross said. “It’s not about one particular community or anything like that. It is solely about what’s acceptable for children.”

Cross also said the temporary ban isn’t meant to attack librarians, which other board members echoed.

“I don’t want anyone going on a librarian witch hunt,” said vice chair Sara Horst. “I’m not looking for us to go and villainize our librarians in this process at all.”

When the board discussed looking at each of the system’s 26 individual librarian collection policies, Kim Tate, the district’s supervisor of English, said those policies are considered best practices in the profession and that “the people in our division are professionals in every sense of the word.”

That was met with applause from the crowd. When it died down, Cross responded.

“Again, this is not a personal attack on librarians. If you feel that way, I’m sorry that you feel that way,” he said. “This is a tough decision, but our communities in Rockingham County, they want this in place, and so if you feel like this is a personal attack, I’m sorry.” He reiterated that he understands that RCPS librarians are qualified professionals.

What will the policymaking process look like?

At its next work session, the board said it will look to hear from librarians on each of their current individual collection practices and get their input on the forthcoming policies. Several board members floated the idea of inviting librarians to meet with board members in a more private setting — while board members signed up to work in the public eye, Horst said, she doesn’t want to subject librarians to speak in public if they don’t want to.

The board asked librarians which venue they’d prefer, and one said she isn’t ashamed of her selection policy and would be willing to speak in public. Several other librarians nodded and agreed.

“I think we should have a conversation that the public is privy to because we’re not making decisions for us. We’re making decisions for children,” she said.

The board agreed that at the next public work session, they’ll hear from two groups of librarians: elementary and secondary. At the meeting after that, they plan to open the floor for public comment. In the meantime, board members said they might visit schools and talk with librarians individually about their selection practices. They’re also considering sending out surveys on the matter and will continue to draft the policies so they can be presented as an informational item at a full board meeting sometime in March.

The board is focusing on two policies: one to create guidelines and a committee for the selection and procurement of books coming into school libraries, and one to create a process for challenging books currently in RCPS libraries. 

Superintendent Larry Shifflett said a new policy is necessary because Policy IIAC, which some have argued already applies to library books, only applies to instructional materials like textbooks that are embedded in school curriculums. The policy has previously been used to evaluate library books.

Potential jumping-off points for the new policies

Board members spoke broadly about what they hope to include and exclude from the policies they’re crafting. 

Horst, who’ll head the board’s committee for this process, said she compiled a bundle of 10 different policies from other school boards across Virginia, including Spotsylvania, Madison, Loudon, Hanover and Shenandoah counties and Norfolk. The board will also consider a list of recommendations sent to the school system by the National Coalition Against Censorship.

All of the county school boards have banned books from their libraries, but Horst made it clear she’s not looking to emulate those policies completely. For example, she said she doesn’t want to make teachers inventory their individual classroom libraries.

The temporary ban includes seven books not currently in RCPS libraries, and Horst and Hollie Cave, who initially proposed the motion and compiled the list of temporarily removed books, have both said the list included those books to account for the possibility they were in classroom libraries.

Jackie Lohr, the only board member to vote against the temporary ban, said she’s “relieved” that there are parts of the other school systems’ policies that Horst doesn’t want to adopt, especially not requiring teachers to take an inventory of their classroom libraries.

“I feel like that is a burden on our teachers to have to go through a committee for every time they open a book in the classroom,” Lohr said. “That’s not workable.”

Cross said currently library collections are decided by just one person at each school — one librarian to serve as the gatekeeper, deciding which books come into schools. But what one person finds acceptable might be offensive to another, he said, which is why he wants to establish a committee to decide which books are bought.

As the board embarks on its policymaking process, board members said they hope the timeline will be kept short and won’t extend past the spring. In the meantime, though, students are protesting the temporary ban.

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