Many Rockingham Co. parents and school staff have opinions and almost all have questions about book policies

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

“A joke,” one person called them. “Politically motivated disaster,” opined another. A “confusing, unnecessary overreach,” said one more — a sentiment that was repeated, just with different wording, in other responses. 

These were a few people’s opinions on the Rockingham County School Board’s proposed policies to determine selection and challenge criteria for library books, according to survey responses obtained by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The online survey, totaling 347 responses, went to RCPS parents, employees and community members earlier this month. It provided spaces for written comment on each individual policy but did not indicate a quantifiable measure or ranking of support. A majority of those who provided feedback expressed opposition, concern and confusion about the forthcoming policies — which mirrored responses that emerged during recent board meetings’ public comment periods.

Most respondents expressed discontent with the policies or said the district’s current policy works fine. About 20% of the responses, based on The Citizen’s  review of comments, suggested support for the school board, its draft policies and its removal of 57 books from school libraries earlier this year. Some people didn’t lean strongly either way, but almost everyone had questions.

You can view the comments in the 93-page document. The Citizen removed all names of respondents:

The school board had intended to vote on the draft policies Monday after unveiling them and opening up public comment at the prior meeting, but the vote was delayed until April 8. Because of the sheer volume of the responses, Horst said, the board wants to take enough time to read through each one, consult with its new legal counsel and adjust the policies as needed.

The survey responses “help us kind of see how things are being interpreted,” Horst said. “When we crafted the policy, where our hearts and minds were, and then to see some of the feedback that was coming back out of the community, it made us go ‘Woah, that maybe wasn’t the interpretation that we were looking for.’”

If approved, the policies would prohibit teachers and librarians from acquiring any books containing sexually explicit content and would create multiple avenues for parents to challenge the appropriateness of library books based on sexual content or other factors.

Many commenters took issue with the board’s definition of sexually explicit material, which it gleaned from a section of Virginia code that restricts state employees from accessing that kind of material on state-owned devices.

Some RCPS employees said books already removed from libraries under the temporary ban don’t meet the “sexually explicit” criteria laid out in Virginia code and that the policy language — specifically that definition — is vague and could cause confusion.

“My assumption is that you want us to err on the side of caution,” one assistant principal said and added that, at the same time, that administrator doesn’t want to unnecessarily “inundate” the group that would evaluate book challenges with a flood of review requests. 

“Based upon what has already been removed I do not have a clear or consistent understanding of what is being looked for,” the assistant principal wrote. 

Several respondents questioned the content review committee, which would include one teacher or librarian, the assistant superintendent and the media supervisor, along with at least one parent and three other parents or community members. Some respondents argued that the balance should shift to give educators a majority of the committee. Others asked how members will be selected to ensure a diverse range of perspectives.

One librarian also pointed out in the survey comments that the policies don’t include any instruction or criteria for the committee’s review of challenged material, like whether committee members will actually be required to read the book in its entirety.

“By evaluating parts or selections from a book, one loses the contextual meaning or purpose intended by the author,” the librarian wrote. “Reading the book and analyzing it as a whole is crucial in determining its literary value and should be a consideration for the evaluating committee.”

Board member Hollie Cave, who compiled the list of 57 books temporarily removed in January, has previously said she didn’t read or research all the books on her list.

Another widely shared concern is that requiring teachers to create and share a list of their classroom library inventory every time they add a new book, as outlined in the selection policy, will amount to a great deal of extra work for teachers, who several commenters said are already overworked.

Of the respondents who agreed with the draft policies, most said they appreciate the school board’s efforts to limit sexually explicit content in school libraries, especially for younger children. They said the policies seem straightforward and practical.

One parent said that elementary students are too young to be presented with sexuality or even be thinking about it at that age. 

“Once you see something, you can’t unsee it,” the parent wrote. “I commend RCPS for taking steps on protecting the most innocent citizens. It’s common sense.”

people sitting in auditorium seats facing a table with others
Rockingham County school librarians face the school board at a work session in Spotswood High School last month as they discuss a proposed county-wide policy regarding book selection and curation. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Others questioned why the school board or parents on the content review committee should decide what books are available for all students, saying each parent should be allowed to decide what’s appropriate for their own children and that the school district banning books would effectively take that choice away from them.

Some respondents offered potential solutions, such as creating a list of potentially sensitive books that parents can review, a separate room or section for books that deal with these topics and a color-coding system.

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