Rockingham Co. school board debates further restriction on student cell phone use, bans romantic fantasy fiction book

One book temporarily banned by the Rockingham County School Board earlier this year won’t return to library shelves. In its review of the list of 57 titles, this is the first time the school board has voted to permanently remove one.

The board voted unanimously and without discussion to remove “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas. It followed the recommendation of Assistant Superintendent Doug Alderfer, who subbed in for Larry Shifflett at Monday’s meeting, and the Content Review Committee. That committee is the group the board established as part of its library book policies in April.

“A Court of Mist and Fury,” a romantic fantasy fiction, was one of the most challenged books in the country in 2022, according to the American Library Association.

Several other books were debated but will ultimately return to shelves. 

“My Friend Dahmer” by Derf Backderf will be allowed after a 3-2 vote, with board member Hollie Cave and chair Matt Cross voicing their disapproval of the book. Although the main story doesn’t contain sexually explicit content, they said some additional information about the Dahmer case at the end of the book does. The Content Review Committee’s recommendation vote on this book was also split.

The vote to return “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini to school libraries was 4-1. Despite a scene that depicts rape, the majority of the board voted to keep it for its literary value. Cave dissented, saying she wanted to follow the policy by removing any sexually explicit content. The policy, which uses Virginia code to define sexually explicit content, provides exceptions for books that exhibit certain value: literary, artistic or otherwise. 

“My ‘no’ tonight is because I believe in accordance with policy,” Cave said. “We shouldn’t be putting it back. There is what I feel is an explicit rape scene in there, very brief but very descriptive. So that’s my ‘no,’ but … it’s not because of lack of literary value.”

Cross voted for its return but said he’d prefer “The Kite Runner” be read with an adult or teacher because of that sexually explicit scene.

Two other books were also returned to shelves. “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell passed unanimously, and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie passed with Cave abstaining, saying she hadn’t had time to read the book. 

Cross, who voted to keep Alexie’s novel, said there’s a racist joke in the book that he dislikes and hopes the title will be challenged through another channel.

Later during public comment, a student thanked the board for reinstating that book.

“Thank you for endorsing, allowing ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ to be put on shelves,” Jacob Coon said. “It means a lot to me as someone who’s a Native American. It’s pretty cool.”

Board weighs stricter cell phone policy

The school board is considering a more restrictive cell phone policy that would prohibit high-school students from using personal devices during all school hours, not just during class.

That would lump the high-schoolers in with the middle-schoolers, who are only permitted to use their phones after school, during after-hour extracurricular activities and on the bus. Students would still be allowed to have their phones during the day, but they’d have to be put away in their book bag or separate container.

Cross and board member Ashley Burgoyne both said they think cell phones are too distracting during the school day and highlighted youth mental health concerns related to cell phone and social media use.

“The students are not going to be happy about this. But as a parent of three, I’ve seen just how much screen time affects my own children, and I also see how social media without any adult supervision can be harmful as well,” Cross said.

He said he wants to see students talking to each other at lunch tables and engaging in activities instead of “their head buried in their phones.”

Board member Jackie Lohr said she opposes the policy update as it’s laid out, saying RCPS already has cell phone policies in place that aren’t being enforced well enough. She also said kids need to learn responsibility and when cell phone use is appropriate.

“To completely take the phones away, I think, is … not letting kids grow into the people that they need to grow into,” Lohr said. “When they go to college, when they go to work, we’re not going to want them on their phones, and they’re gonna have to have that figured out when they graduate. I think that this does not let them figure that out.”

Several board members said while they want cell phone restrictions to improve student conduct, mental health and focus, they aren’t looking to withhold students’ cell phones throughout the day like other school districts in the U.S. have. In an emergency, Burgoyne said, she wants her child to have their phone and be able to reach her.

During public comment, several people supported more cell phone restrictions at school and even on the bus, something that’s not included in the current proposal. 

“This is a great time for them to learn, to have interactions with other students and to not be on the phones,” said Ruth Robertson, an RCPS parent. “They don’t need that. It’s damaging for their brains to be on there. It’s addicting; there’s depression; there’s mental issues … I just fully support no cell phone use during school.”

Jacob Coon, however, said that, as a student, he likes having his cell phone available to communicate and make plans with friends throughout the day.

School board members will vote on the policy update at the Aug. 12 meeting. In the meantime, they encouraged constituents to contact them with input.

In other news

The school board awarded several contracts, including one to JH Pence, a Roanoke-based school services company, which will replace the gym bleachers at Turner Ashby High School for $323,617. 

The board also awarded bids for speech and language services to two companies: Timber Ridge Speech Services, which charges $82 per hour, and Valley Speech & Literacy, which costs $82.50 per hour.

Thanks for reading  The Citizen, which won the Virginia Press Association’s 2022 News Sweepstakes award as the top online news site in Virginia. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We value your support.

Scroll to the top of the page

Hosting & Maintenance by eSaner

Thanks for reading The Citizen!

We’re glad you’re enjoying The Citizen, winner of the 2022 VPA News Sweepstakes award as the best online news site in Virginia! We work hard to publish three news stories every week, and depend heavily on reader support to do that.