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New Rules for Banning Books in Schools?

Questions Remain over Proposed Policy Changes

When parents object to the books in their children’s schools, the bureaucratic process that ensues ties up the School Board's time.

Because of the amount of time involved, and the increase in the number of such objections, the board is working to change the process. In the meantime, the board has imposed a moratorium on new challenges.

"We were interested in having the board act more like an appellate court. It takes a vote of four members to hear an appeal or else the superintendent has the final decision," said Anne Murphy, the School Board's counsel. Right now, if a parent objects to a book or other materials, a school-based review committee makes the first determination.

The new draft policy creates a two-track system and eliminates the local review committee in an effort to streamline the process. School-specific challenges launched by parents, children or staff directly affected by the materials will be subject to a principal review. An appeal would go to the appropriate department review committee, whose decision can be appealed to the superintendent and finally appealed to the School Board. The board will only consider an appeal if four members agree the appeal has merit.

Parent or staff challenges to remove or restrict access to materials countywide skip the principal review, but otherwise follow the same procedure.

SCHOOL BOARD member Rita Thompson (At large) said the new procedures place too much of a burden on the parents lodging the challenge and reiterated her stance that challenges could be avoided altogether by having better staff reviews of the materials before they are placed in the schools.

"Most of the challenges I've seen have been because parents are concerned about language, sexual violence and in my opinion, border on pornography," Thompson said. "If we could do a better job at the front end, we wouldn't have problems at the back end. Some of these materials are not appropriate at these age levels."

Challenges launched by citizens without standing, those whose children are not directly affected by the books in question, would go to an interdepartmental committee for review with appeals to the superintendent and finally the School Board, if deemed to have merit. The timetable for such challenges would be extended.

In addition, challengers will be required to provide written materials including the specifics of the objection and whether or not the challenger has read reviews of the material. The draft also allows for staff to dismiss challenges deemed frivolous and clarifies the authority of the principals to remove questionable materials without going through the formal process.

It creates a limit on the number of challenges one person can file in a given year and imposes a three-year limit before previously reviewed materials can be rechallenged.

"I HAVE A PROBLEM with 'any four,'" said Tessie Wilson (Braddock), referring to the requirement that four board members must decide an appeal has merit before it goes to the full board. "If we want to be reasonable stewards, every board member should have to read the book in order to determine if a challenge has merit. Otherwise, you're making a judgment about the materials beforehand."

"I don't see anything wrong with board members reading the book then deciding if we want to do anything," said chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill). "I do feel it is necessary to have the person making the challenge have read the book and provide the appropriate information.

“It's a question of burden,” Gibson said. “When a parent has concerns about a book they find inappropriate for their child and starts trying to limit access of every one's child. … Yes, people objecting to books have rights, but those parents who don't have objections have rights too."