Rockingham County’s school board unveils proposals for selecting, reviewing and challenging books

A colorful book held in someone's hands
“This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson is one of the 57 books temporarily banned. Many students who joined a walkout last month in protest carried some of the books that were on the list to be removed from school libraries. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

The draft policies that the Rockingham County School Board presented Monday regarding the selection and review of books in schools would prohibit teachers and librarians from acquiring any books that contain sexually explicit content.

In addition to establishing many criteria for selecting books, the proposed policies also include procedures to challenge books and for a content review committee. The board will solicit community feedback through surveys between Tuesday and March 18. This comes two months after the school board removed or precluded 57 specific titles from the system’s libraries.

“This policy has never been about banning books,” said Sara Horst, the board’s vice chair and leader of the committee charged with writing the new policies.

Horst said the board took on the task to create pathways for people to raise concerns about materials in the county’s schools. The drafts are a culmination of a weeks-long policymaking process during which the board reviewed policies from other Virginia school divisions and solicited feedback from its own librarians and their current practices.

The policies apply not only to books but to any supplementary materials. A proposed amendment to the district’s existing Policy IIAB would define such supplementary materials as “non-instructional items, regardless of format” and explicitly includes school and classroom library books.

The amendment would prohibit any supplementary materials containing sexually explicit content as defined in the Virginia code as any description of visual representation of “sexual bestiality, a lewd exhibition of nudity … sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sadomasochistic abuse … coprophilia, urophilia, or fetishism.”

The proposed policy for supplementary materials selection outlines criteria teachers and librarians would have to use when acquiring new books, including age appropriateness and reference to the Massanutten Regional Library’s age classification, relevance to curriculum, price and physical quality, recommendations from other teachers or librarians, depth of coverage and several other factors. 

As teachers and librarians select new books, they must regularly provide a list of them to their principal, which will then be available for all parents to review within 30 days.

Books could also be “deselected,” according to the policy. Teachers and librarians would have to submit any material currently in their library that contains sexually explicit content to the new RCPS Content Review Committee and follow the procedure laid out in the other new policy.

The draft policy for complaints and challenges to supplementary materials would establish two processes: one for sexually explicit materials and one for all others. The main difference between the two procedures is that all book challenges regarding sexually explicit content would ultimately make it to the school board for a final decision, whereas others will only do so if appealed several times.

For any book that appears to contain sexually explicit content, a person can make a complaint using a document that would go to the school’s principal, then be referred directly to a Content Review Committee. This committee, which would be appointed annually by the superintendent, would include: one school librarian or teacher, the assistant superintendent, the RCPS media services supervisor, a member of the Parents Advisory Committee and three other parents or community members.

The committee would have 90 days to review the complaint and make a recommendation to the superintendent, who will then make a recommendation to the school board. The board would have final say and could instruct all schools — not just the one where the complaint originated — to keep, modify or remove the challenged book.

For complaints that don’t allege sexually explicit content, the policy instructs the complainant to try and resolve the issue by talking with the principal. If they can’t come to an agreement, they can fill out RCPS’s existing media complaint form. The complaint will go to a school-level committee of two faculty members and three parents or community members. That decision can be appealed and will keep moving up the ladder to the superintendent and a division-level committee, then to the school board if necessary.

Teachers and librarians should work with parents on a case-by-case basis to make sure library books are appropriate based on a parent’s guidelines or preferences.

RCPS will circulate a Google Form, starting Tuesday and closing March 18, to solicit feedback about the policies from parents, staff and community members. The survey will be sent directly to stakeholders but will also be available on the county’s website. Board chair Matt Cross and superintendent Larry Shifflett urged only county constituents to fill out the survey, saying they’ve received messages from people and groups all over but want to focus on what Rockingham County residents have to say.

Horst said survey feedback will be considered as the board prepares the final drafts, which could come up for a vote at the board’s next meeting March 25.

One public commenter, retired librarian Sandra Parks, said she’s disappointed that the board is limiting feedback on these policies to a Google Form. All public commenters focused on the library policies Monday. A majority of those who offered comments— including Jeff Bolander, a retired U.S. Marine who now sits on the JMU Board of Visitors — spoke in support of the draft policies and of the board.

Also of note

The board voted unanimously to issue a statement of support that’ll initiate the process of determining whether it’s feasible for RCPS to find a property to build an agricultural land lab. As presented at the last meeting, the endeavor would involve an outdoor space and a facility to be shared by all schools and grades within the district for agriculture and farming courses.

“I know we’re pretty excited as a board to be able to be going forward with this … I know the community is as well, to have this in Rockingham County,” Cross said.

Two RCPS teachers, Emmett Sheahan and Owen Longacre, told board about incentives for helping more of the division’s teachers become nationally board certified. 

Rockingham is “lagging” behind other divisions, statewide and nationally, with fewer than 1% of its teachers being board-certified, Longacre said. 

He attributed this to “diminishing financial incentives.” It costs about $2,000 to be certified, and he said the money teachers get back from the school system isn’t enough to make it worth it.

“In some cases, teachers have expressed that they’re not willing to pay the upfront cost that certification requires, but other teachers … have expressed that they are not financially motivated by the current stipend that has remained the same since 2002,” Longacre said.

For two decades, board-certified teachers have earned a $1,500 stipend which, when it was established and combined with a $2,500 state stipend, amounted to 13.9% of the starting salary. While wages have increased 69% in the past 20 years, Longacre said, the stipend hasn’t and is now just 7.8% of the starting salary. Sheahan and Longacre asked the board to increase the stipend by over $2,700, restoring it back to the original share.

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