A half-dozen temporarily banned books return to circulation in Rockingham Co. Schools

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

The Rockingham County School Board returned six more books to library and classroom shelves following their temporary removal earlier this year — but not without dissent from the board member who compiled the list of books to review. 

The 4-1 vote came after the recommendation of Superintendent Larry Shifflett and his new Content Review Committee, which is set to review 43 more books over the summer. Hollie Cave, who in January submitted the initial list of 57 books to temporarily ban, was the only board member to vote against returning the books.

Here are the books being returned to libraries:

  • “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier
  • The “Heartstopper” series, Volumes 1-4, by Alice Oseman
  • “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

This followed the board’s vote to reinstate “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig at the board’s May 6 meeting.

The committee, and ultimately the school board, determined the books did not contain sexually explicit content. Cave said before the vote that her main concern was with “Drama,” which she argued shouldn’t be allowed in elementary schools.

Cave asked whether the Content Review Committee had considered retaining “Drama” only in middle and high schools. She said that after reading each of those books, she agrees they don’t contain sexually explicit content by the legal definition but argued that the themes in “Drama” are too mature for elementary students. She didn’t specify which themes she was referring to.

Shifflett said the committee did discuss the “developmentally appropriate nature” of some books, but that concern doesn’t fall under this committee’s purview. The Content Review Committee, according to the policies the board approved last month, is charged with determining only whether a book contains sexually explicit content — not whether its themes, storylines, characters or any other aspect of the book is appropriate for certain children or ages. For that, and all other concerns, the policies outline a separate complaint process largely similar to the one RCPS has had for years. 

Cave urged parents to be diligent and involved in what their children are reading because the policy isn’t “100% failsafe” and isn’t a substitute for parental oversight.

“Just because we have policies in place and you did your job in November and you’ve put good board members on your local school board, that doesn’t mean that we can fix everything,” Cave said before the vote. “It doesn’t mean that you can abdicate your responsibility as a parent.” 

In general comments later in Monday’s meeting, Cave added: “You need to be involved and not … trust in our policy to make everything the way that you wish it was for your child. Nothing’s going to replace your presence and your involvement in your child’s education.”

Board approves salary scales with 3% increase

The school board unanimously approved salary scales presented by Chief Financial Officer Justin Moyers, which reflect a 3% raise mandated by the state budget. Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the budget into law last week. 

With a graduating pay scale, teacher salaries will start at $53,518 for those with zero years of experience. Similarly, teacher assistants will start at $15.37/hour, behavior support assistants will start at $17.16/hour and so on.

Schools’ food contract sparks questions

The board unanimously accepted a bid from Merchants Grocery Company to provide food service to schools in 2024-25. It does so as part of the Blue Ridge Co-op, a group of regional school divisions that go in together on the food contract. The total deal is worth more than $8.1 million, a 2% increase from last year, but Rockingham County’s share is currently around $1.7 million, said Jennifer Williams, RCPS supervisor of food and nutrition services.

Cave posed several questions about the quality of Merchants’ food, saying she’s received many complaints since she joined the school board this year. She also asked why RCPS switched to Merchants from Sysco several years ago. 

Williams said the contract goes to the lowest bidder, which at some point became Merchants.

The board proceeded to vote because it needed to secure food for the next school year, but board chair Matt Cross said he wants to arrange meetings to plan for the next year and address quality concerns.

Elementary school counseling

Several school counselors presented to the board on their work in Rockingham County’s elementary schools. In addition to individual and small group counseling, the group performs crisis intervention like self-harm assessments.

“Unfortunately, at the elementary school level you wouldn’t think that that’s something that you deal with, but we deal with it pretty commonly, actually,” one counselor said.

School counselors also provide guidance on best practices for classroom culture, and they organize programming like Bully Prevention Month and Kindness Week. But their jobs aren’t limited to mental and behavioral health. They organize career days and aptitude tests, maintain connections with parents and support schools with role model programs, food pantries, student clubs and other initiatives.

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