In the previous 19 years, there have been a total of 12 challenges to books and other instructional materials used or available in Fairfax County Public Schools' classrooms or libraries.
Recently, one family filed challenges to 23 books requesting their removal from elementary and middle school libraries. Some of the books have already been deemed to require no action, either because the books have already been removed or were only available in the Professional Collection, which cannot be accessed by students. However, there are several titles still to make their way through the challenged materials process, which could ultimately reach the School Board for a final decision.
Given the increasing number of challenges over the last few years, board members are working to streamline the process.
"I think [the procedure] needs to be revised because of the recent activity," said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock). "I've talked to people who have served on the board in the past and they never had a challenge in four years."
The Fairfax County School Board will debate two alternatives Monday, Dec. 9, during an all-day work session, aimed at amending the “challenged materials” policy as it pertains to library materials.
The first, put forth by board chair Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), would require a person to have "standing" in order to launch a challenge. He also proposed adding a provision, which would permit a board decision to be reviewed after a set period of time, possibly a year.
Fellow School Board member Robert Frye (At large) will be presenting an alternative to the Gibson proposals that creates a sort-of "triage" system for appeals at the School Board level. At a work session Nov. 11, where Gibson's proposals were first introduced, Frye had made a similar suggestion that was not warmly received by the other members. This time, Frye has refined his idea and asked staff to create a draft based on his proposal to present at the work session.
"There's a big difference," Frye said of his original idea and the current proposal. "In this one, the board will be developing criteria to use."
THERE ARE TWO TYPES of challenges that can be made: to materials at one school or materials on a countywide basis. When a formal challenge is filed at one school, the principal and the school's standing review committee — made up of volunteer parents, teachers and administrators at that school — read the materials, conduct a hearing with the complainant and make a decision on the challenged materials.
If the challenge seeks to have the material removed countywide or is an appeal of the local review committee's decision, the challenge is forwarded to the appropriate department. The Department of Instructional Services or the Department of Special Services review basal materials adopted by the School Board and program or supplementary materials approved by the departments. The Department of Information Technology reviews library materials. A department-level pool committee consisting mostly of randomly chosen parents, teachers, administrators and if it is a high-school level challenge, students, follows the same procedures as the local review committee. The complainant can appeal the decision to the division superintendent and School Board.
Each challenge is estimated to cost the school system $2,600 in staff time and to purchase the challenged materials for the various committees and School Board members to read. There is also a timetable imposed at each level of the process.
"The problem is that often times, by the time a parent realizes what their child is reading, the child may be half way through the book and by the time you go through the challenge process, the child has finished the book," said Alice Ess, whose family filed the recent wave of challenges. Ess is a member of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS).
FRYE'S PROPOSAL would have central office staff weigh each appeal against specific criteria created by the School Board, which includes factors such as how many copies of the book are actually in school libraries, how often students are exposed to the book as determined through circulation records, and at what school-level library is the book available — elementary, middle or high school.
Staff would then sort the challenges by seriousness and the board would review the challenge based on how they were sorted and relative to other pending board matters such as the budget. Appeals deemed not serious would be given an interim decision by staff based on previous board decisions. The proposal would not place a limit on the number of challenges that can be posed at any given time or set requirements on who can launch a challenge.
"One or two staff members can evaluate the challenge and over time, it should limit the challenges the board is receiving [and be cost efficient]," Frye said. "If we have documented appeals and created a body of actions on books, it would be very easy for staff members to advise a person on whether the board has already looked at that book and how it acted."
Frye said the content of the book is important, not the status of the challenger. He also said he believes everyone on the board wants books that support the curriculum and do not contain excess violence and vulgarity.
By contrast, Gibson wants to amend the policy to permit the School Board to be asked to reconsider decisions regarding the restricting of students' access to materials. He also proposes adding the requirement that challenges to materials can only be filed by someone with "standing," similar to rules governing lawsuits. Someone of standing would be or would have a child directly impacted by the challenged materials.
"The real issue we're seeing is the wholesale challenges of books by parents whose child is not impacted by the book," Gibson said at the time. "We're talking about library books that may or may not be checked out. It costs the school system $2,600 to challenge one library book. I think it is appropriate for the board to say if you're going to challenge a book, you ought to be impacted. It doesn't mean you can't complain about it and if it's inappropriate, it can be removed without a formal challenge."
"IT'S A VERY SLOW, tedious and bureaucratic process that is stacked against the parents," Ess said, comparing the review committees to "kangaroo courts" and said they very often side with the school system.
"The process could use a little work," Ess said, "and be more parent friendly."
She declined to comment specifically on either proposal, saying she had not heard of Frye's amendment yet and was not familiar enough with Gibson’s proposal.
Wilson said there are a lot of policies that could be more parent friendly, however, she said the whole challenged materials procedure needs to be looked at "not only from how does a challenge go forward, but to the make up of these committees."
The school-based review committee is selected by the principal from a list of volunteers at the beginning of the school year and hears any and all challenges brought within that year. The departmental committee is selected from a pool of volunteers countywide. A new committee is selected for each appeal, said Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the Department of Information Technology. The regulation governing challenged materials spells out the number of members and make up of each committee.
Recently, the committees have come under fire. Critics claim the Fairfax County Council of PTAs (FCCPTA) is requiring PTA members on the committees to pledge to support the council's position on challenged materials, which the critics describe as "anything goes."
"The committees rubber stamp everything," Ess said. "I think they need to address these committees. It doesn't seem like a balanced group."
Diane Brody, president of the FCCPTA, said she has heard the criticism and it is simply not true. She said the council was contacted to gauge if there were any PTA members interested in volunteering to serve on the committees. She said the school system was looking for 20 to 25 people and more than 60 responded.
"There were so many questions from interested people that we didn't have the answers to, so we sent out the information we had — the list of books being challenged, the regulation and our resolution," Brody said. "Nobody had to pledge anything. We weren't trying to sway the outcome. Since we had a resolution on the process, we wanted people to be aware of it."
The resolution, passed in August, reads in part: "Be it resolved that the Fairfax County Council of PTAs Board respects the intellectual freedom and Constitutional rights of FCPS students and their parents to read, receive and express ideas; … Be it further resolved that the FCCPTA Board supports the assertion that FCPS supplemental and library materials that have been selected and maintained through due process and review should not be restricted or removed without compelling justification."
Brody said the council has not taken a position on either proposed amendment and that the resolution was in support of the process as it existed at the time.
"We didn't think the process was broken at the time," Brody said. "I'm not saying we wouldn't be for streamlining it, if the public has ample input. There is a process in place to protect everyone’s rights. … If people are going to start to abuse the system, then maybe we need to look at it."
The all-day work session is scheduled to begin on Monday, Dec. 9, 9 a.m., at the Burkholder Administrative Center, 10700 Page Ave., Fairfax. The policy review portion, featuring the challenged materials amendments, is tentatively scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m.