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Board Re-examines Book Challenge Policy

Challenges Bog Down System

About the only thing the Fairfax County School Board could agree on was that the existing procedures governing book challenges is broken. How to fix it, is another matter.

Monday afternoon during an all-day work session, the School Board, with Isis Castro (Mount Vernon) absent from the discussion, debated two referrals chairman Stuart Gibson made to the policy committee last summer concerning amending the challenged materials procedures. Gibson wants to amend the policy to permit the School Board to be asked to reconsider decisions regarding the restricting of students’ access to curriculum or library materials. He also proposes adding the requirement that challenges to curriculum or library materials can only be filed by someone with “standing,” similar to rules governing lawsuits.

“I was concerned that if the board made a decision on challenged materials, it was permanent. I thought there should be a provision so that if times change and they do … there is a mechanism to review the decision after the lapse of a period of time,” Gibson said. “The board could reconsider, at the request of affected groups or board members, no sooner than a year after the decision was made.”

The referrals hit the School Board’s agenda coincidentally just weeks after a family filed 25 challenges on Oct. 15. The multiple challenges prompted schools superintendent Daniel Domenech to ask the School Board to suspend the regulation. The policy spells out who can launch a challenge and to what materials while the regulation dictates the actual procedures for the challenge. The suspension in effect puts a moratorium on any new challenges until Dec. 6. At that time, the School Board is expected to have decided on how to revise the policy or to decide to extend the suspension. The request was made because the regulation imposes time limits on the review process that schools officials said would be impossible to meet with 23 pending challenges. In two cases, the same book is challenged at different locations.

UNDER THE CURRENT regulation, 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 has 15 schools days from the day the challenge is received to have that school’s standing review committee read the materials, conduct a hearing with the complainant and make a decision on the challenged materials. The complainant then has 15 school days to appeal the local committee’s decision to the superintendent.

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 reviews library materials. The Department of Information Technology or the Department of Special Services and Education review basal materials adopted by the School Board and program or supplementary materials approved by the departments. The departments have 45 school days to respond. A department-level pool committee consisting mostly of randomly chosen parents, teachers, administrators and students follow the same procedures as the local review committee. The complainant has 20 school days to appeal the decision to the division superintendent and School Board, which then have 30 days to respond.

Everyone on the School Board seemed to agree that 23 challenges are, whether intentionally or not, an abuse of the regulation and that something needs to be done to prevent a similar backlog. However, not everyone agreed on how to revise the regulation.

The biggest stumbling block was Gibson’s requirement of “standing” to file a challenge. Gibson said he modeled his definition of standing, someone directly impacted by the challenged materials, after judicial law, which requires someone to meet a definition of standing to file a lawsuit.

“The real issue we’re seeing is the wholesale challenges of books by parents whose child is not impacted by the book,” Gibson said.

He said he requested the referral last summer after the parents of a fourth-grader challenged library materials in high school.

“We’re talking about books in the library that may or may not be checked out,” Gibson said. “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.”

Principals and librarians can remove materials from school libraries that are deemed inappropriate before a formal challenge is filed. Once the challenge is filed, however, the procedures in the regulation must be followed. One challenge to a library book is estimated to require 80 hours of staff time as it moves through the formal process.

HOW TO DEFINE impacted, however, is the question for some School Board members, saying every taxpayer in the county has standing since they pay for the materials. In addition, a student at one school can request a book from another school’s library, under certain conditions, thereby giving them standing at every school.

“By Mr. Gibson’s definition, every student has standing,” said Christian Braunlich (Lee). "I think we have an obligation to the taxpayers … and to say to them they do not have a right to challenge … to say, ‘Just send us your money and go over there and shut up. …’”

Braunlich added that he thought limiting the number of challenges one family can file at a time to one was reasonable and that the filing of 23 simultaneous challenges only hurts the credibility of the challenges themselves. Kaye Kory (Mason) said that placing a limit on the number of challenges by one person would not necessarily keep the system from being backlogged because it does not prevent multiple challenges from multiple people from being filed. Instead she suggested changing the time limits in the regulation. “No matter what rules we create, someone can always go around the rules,” Kory said.

Ernestine Heastie (Providence) questioned why the regulation permitted someone to challenge the materials in the libraries on a countywide basis in the first place. “I think that is a mistake we’ve been making and I also think we are forgetting each school has a local committee made up of parents that reviews the materials at that school.”

THE STUDENT REPRESENTATIVE, Matthew Wansley, said the 23 challenges were going to cost the school system about $59,800, “which will nearly pay for two years tuition at college. It’s unreasonable to expect us to review 23 books.”

He said changing the time frame for the challenge process was the most reasonable solution and suggested a system similar to the Supreme Court’s when it comes to the School Board’s involvement. He said, paralleling the court, that after the appropriate department has made it’s decision and forwards its report to the School Board, four board members should have to agree to hear the appeal before it is brought to the full board. He reminded the board of a recent challenge in which a departmental challenge was appealed, the School Board then read the challenged book and no one on the board moved to take any action, thereby denying the appeal. If his system was in place, the School Board would have been able to decide to take no action before having to read the nearly 500-pages book.

Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the Department of Information Technology, said nine of the challenges had already been resolved.

A draft policy change was scheduled to be introduced for information at the School Board’s Nov. 21 meeting and placed on the Dec. 5 meeting for action.