Rockingham Co. school board reinstates one banned book as review gets underway

The Rockingham County School Board reinstated one of the 57 books it temporarily removed and barred from library and classroom shelves back in January: “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig.

Superintendent Larry Shifflett said the Content Review Committee, established as part of the library book selection and complaint policies the board passed at its last meeting April 22, found that “The Invisible Boy” does not contain sexually explicit content. Based on Shifflett’s recommendation, the board voted unanimously to reinstate the book at Monday’s meeting.

A public commenter and parent, Elieen Frueh, asked what would happen to the other 56 titles during the months-long review process. 

“Hopefully, during that time, the books that weren’t being reviewed would be back into circulation,” Frueh said. “Otherwise, those stories and ideas are presumed guilty before they’ve proven innocent.”

Board member Jackie Lohr echoed Frueh’s question at the end of the meeting, prompting more explanation from Shifflett.

Committee members will read the 49 other books on the list that are currently in RCPS libraries. The remaining seven titles aren’t currently owned by the school district. This process will likely extend through the summer because of the time required to read them all, Shifflett said. Later, the committee will convene to discuss whether each book includes sexually explicit material as defined by Virginia code.

Shifflett said he intends to be “thorough” while working through the list, then move forward. He said he expects book challenges at the school level, as well, and said reinstating or removing books will likely be a regular agenda item at board meetings from now on.

The superintendent didn’t name committee members and said the committee isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act, a law that requires government bodies to operate in public view and make their documents accessible to members of the public. Shifflett said the group and its documents are exempt because it’s a superintendent’s committee, not the school board’s. The group will make suggestions to the superintendent, who will make his own recommendation to the school board. Ultimately, the school board makes the decision.

When Lohr asked how committee members were chosen, Shifflett said he tried to represent people from all four attendance districts and from the elementary-, middle- and high-school levels. As defined in the new policy, the committee consists of a school librarian or teacher, an assistant superintendent, the supervisor of English and four parents, guardians or community members.

“To be on the committee, I was really looking for two things. One is that you could read and like to read,” Shifflett said. “Then, you had to [have] the reputation of someone who would be willing to have dialogue, to sit at the table and have a conversation.”

Frueh also said during her public comment that educators serving on the committee should receive a stipend.

“This is a highly contentious and political process,” Frueh said. “It is difficult and it is perhaps not ethical to ask staff and teachers to serve on those committees with all of this public pressure without being appropriately compensated.”

School board members did not discuss a stipend for committee members.

In light of the school year ending soon and Teacher Appreciation Week, several board members also reflected on their campaigns and their work over the past few months. Vice chair Sara Horst and board member Ashley Burgoyne both said they want to keep lines of communication open and hear from teachers and parents.

Board chair Matt Cross also reflected on the policymaking process, saying that despite the attendance at the April 22 meeting of many people who oppose the library policies, it’s what many board members pledged to do during their campaigns.

“Although at Turner Ashby High School the other night we didn’t have a lot of our people that voted for us in 2021, and last year for the three new ones that came on, but they ran their campaigns on getting the dirty books out of our libraries. And that’s what this policy was about,” Cross said. “It was about sexually explicit content within books, and that’s what parents don’t want in their school libraries. We listened to our parents and we’re going to do our best to [uphold] our promises to the parents of Rockingham County.”

Also of note

The board awarded new contracts on Monday, including one to K & K Insurance for Voluntary Student Accident Insurance and one for new furniture for the Broadway High School addition. 

Virginia-based company The Supply Room won the bid for classroom furniture, conference room tables and chairs and science lab desks, totaling more than $136,000. Virginia School Equipment won the bid for teacher wardrobes and bookcases for more than $57,000. Both were the lowest prices RCPS received. 

RCPS also plans to distribute a survey to teachers soon about student discipline. Shifflett said it’s a fact-finding mission to learn more about student conduct and determine how the school district might change its discipline practices for next year. 

The new Student Conduct Committee also found that elementary, middle and high schools all face different problems, so it’s split into three corresponding focus groups.

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