School district’s review of books is underway — but will be done largely out of the public eye

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 Wednesday’s walkout in protest carried some of the books that were on the list to be removed from school libraries. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

As the Rockingham County school district reviews the 57 books the school board barred from libraries and classrooms in January, the process is expected to stretch throughout the summer and will be completed largely out of the public eye.

Soon after the school board approved new policies April 22 to establish a complaint and review process for books that allegedly contain sexually explicit content, Superintendent Larry Shifflett assembled his Content Review Committee. The committee reviewed its first book, graphic novel “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig, and recommended the school board reinstate it to libraries, saying there was no sexually explicit content in it. The school board agreed unanimously to do so at Monday’s meeting.

With seven of the listed books not actually owned by RCPS, that leaves the committee with 49 to go.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Shifflett noted that the Content Review Committee and its work product are not subject to Freedom of Information Act laws, which are meant to make government meetings and documents accessible to the public. Instead, documents from this committee are classified as “superintendent’s workflow.”

Advisory committees like this one are typically included under Virginia’s FOIA law. However, because the school board classified the group as a superintendent’s committee and not a school board committee in the new policy for sexually explicit book complaints, it’s one step removed from the public body — the school board — and therefore exempt from FOIA. This means members of the public and media won’t be able to attend committee meetings or request any information or documentation from the committee.

Shifflett said the school board did it this way in part to avoid the hassle of setting up public meetings and sending out meeting notices with potential scheduling snafus.

“They decided to allow it to be a superintendent’s committee so we weren’t hampered by trying to make a public notice for meetings and then maybe, at the last minute, we have to cancel because two of the members couldn’t be there,” Shifflett said. “If it was a school board committee, we’d have to advertise that to the community … It was just being able to have a little bit more freedom in how we set up these meetings and work through these conversations.”

Shifflett also declined to share the committee members’ identities — not to hide them but to protect them, he said. He wants them to participate in the group without fear of being scrutinized or potentially harassed for removing or returning books to the libraries.

“I’m trying to protect them so that they can do this work in good faith and good conscience and not be worried about people criticizing them when they go to a soccer game or a tennis match or whatever,” Shifflett said. “They don’t deserve that. These folks are volunteers … I don’t think they deserve that, to have to be under such scrutiny from the public.”

While Shifflett can participate with the Content Review Committee’s discussion, the committee’s recommendation is technically separate from the superintendent’s, according to the policy. 

This creates the gap that shields the committee from FOIA: The committee advises Shifflett and not the school board directly. Despite that distinction, Shifflett said he doesn’t anticipate any situation in which his recommendation would differ from the committee’s.

“We’re trying to have conversations and dialogue. That’s our ultimate goal, to come to consensus, and then I would take that to the board,” Shifflett said. “I trust the judgment of these seven individuals collectively to work through these books and make sound recommendations.”

It’s the superintendent’s separation and option to differ from the committee, though, that keeps the group from advising the board directly. That advisory power is placed with Shifflett.

When asked what the committee’s authority is, Shifflett said it’s “the trust that we put in them” to thoroughly review each book.

One person Shifflett has placed that trust in to serve on the committee, Nathan Musselman, told The Citizen that as he interprets it, everyone on the committee has a genuine interest in an “honest and sincere” review of these books. Musselman is one of four parents selected for the Content Review Committee.

Though Musselman has spoken publicly about his concerns with the new library policies, he said he’s had multiple conversations with Shifflett in recent months and was open to serving on the committee when Shifflett asked him.

“I would have written such a policy much differently. However, I care about what happens to these books,” Musselman said. “Even though I’m not 100% in agreement with the policy, I felt that I could make a better impact on the committee than off the committee. I felt like it was a good place to be, and I was encouraged by the sincerity and the approach of the superintendent in speaking to him about it.”

Musselman said the committee has had one meeting so far, mostly as an introduction. Now, they’re taking it a few books at a time, breaking the list up into batches. For each batch, Shifflett and all committee members will read the books, then meet to discuss and come to a consensus on whether each book contains sexually explicit content. Shifflett will make a recommendation to the school board on which books should be removed or returned to library shelves. The school board has the final say.

As a citizen who’s watched the school board’s policymaking process on this issue, Musselman said he’s wanted to see transparency and shares that concern with other community members. While he said he couldn’t share which titles the committee will review next, he did say Shifflett and the committee seem to be doing the best they can to review the books thoroughly and doing so in a timely manner.

“Everyone wants to do an honest and sincere review of these books acting under the constraints of the policy that we’re enacting but, as far as I can tell, with goodwill and an interest in doing a good, fair job,” Musselman said.

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