Loudoun County Public Schools’ diverse classroom libraries program was once again a prominent topic at Tuesday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting, during which board members shared their responses to the often uproarious public debate surrounding the issue.
“We have hate from both sides, and I think it’s very, very sad,” Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge District) said. “This is not how I wanted to go out on the board.”
Starting with the board’s Sept. 24 meeting, citizens participating in procedures for public comment have expressed both support and disapproval of the new book collection, which according to LCPS’ English Language Arts webpage is sorted into three categories: “Diverse Race, Culture, Language [and] Religion,” “Disabilities/Abilities” and “LGBTQ.”
A number of parents and students have voiced concerns about certain titles in the collection that feature content they consider gratuitously sexual or violent, with some speakers reading such passages verbatim before the dais. While some openly support diversity in reading materials and wish only for certain titles to be reviewed, others have asked for the removal of the diverse classroom libraries altogether.
Conversely, other citizens have decried efforts to remove or modify the new collection as censorship and “book burning,” opining that the collection should be preserved as-is and that the personal, often religious convictions of some parents should not dictate how LCPS controls the reading materials available to all students.
The topic took up the majority of the public comment sections at the board’s Oct. 8 and Oct. 24 meetings. At the latter, attendees began to dress according to their stances on the matter — those wishing for the diverse classroom libraries’ modification or removal clad in green, those in favor of their preservation in purple.
Board members and administrative staff finally publicly addressed the issue at the Oct. 24 meeting, during which Superintendent Eric Williams acknowledged he and LCPS administration did not communicate information on the new program to parents or board members in a sufficient or timely manner.
"While some communication did occur, the timing and nature of that communication should've been different. For example, it would've made sense to have had a public conversation with the School Board regarding this initiative before we launched it, rather than informing them of the initiative after it was launched," Williams said.
These comments did little to quell the controversy. Roughly half of the nearly 50 public commenters at Tuesday’s meeting continued to hammer at the issue, many again wearing colors corresponding to their beliefs.
Near the end of the meeting the topic was introduced as an information item, prompting Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis to provide the board and attendees with updates on LCPS response to the problem.
Ellis began by mentioning that the LCPS Department of Instruction had begun division-level reviews of 10 particularly controversial books in the high school diverse libraries, a list of which is available on the program’s FAQ page. She explained that titles under review will ultimately either be maintained at its current level, "re-leveled" to another grade-level classroom library, moved from classroom libraries to general school libraries or ousted from circulation altogether.
As Ellis mentioned at the last meeting, titles on the middle school diverse classroom libraries list have yet to be purchased and will not be until LCPS Policy §5-7, Instruction and its accompanying regulations have been reviewed by the Curriculum and Instruction Committee.
Board members were then given the opportunity to question and comment, with Joy Maloney (Broad Run District) stating her anticipation of Policy §5-7’s revision to ensure uniform solutions to the issue, particularly involving the review process.
“Obviously it’s concerning to me to see elementary school books moved to the school counseling office in some schools and not in others,” she said. “To me that’s something where we should be looking at something more division-wide as opposed to leaving that decision up to the school level.”
Debbie Rose (Algonkian District) followed by expressing her dismay at public commenters displaying “hate and anger on both sides” of the argument.
“People that are coming here because they’re concerned about Christian values being basically ignored are exhibiting, through actions here and in the emails we get, very un-Christian-like behavior,” she said. “And then on the other side, unfortunately, we have this group that hisses at the other side, literally hisses, laughs at and makes snide comments about their beliefs.”
Rose emphasized parents’ rights to request that certain titles be reviewed, and she suggested the issue at large could have been more constructively handled had administration been open about implementing the diverse books program.
“Had there been more communication with the School Board and with parents, we wouldn’t be here listening to very angry people create more division in our community for the better part of a month or more,” she said. “We could’ve avoided all this.”
Next to comment was Chris Croll (Catoctin District), who stated her belief that the board is “sincere … to make sure the content of these books is appropriate and is leveled in the right place.” She then opined that opponents of the collection are often making arguments based on personal prejudices.
“The protests we’ve heard, and they’re very transparent about it, are clearly not about books, not about profanity, not about sexual content. It’s an anti-LGBT protest. That’s what it is,” Croll said. “A lot of what we’ve heard, a lot of the hate, is not new. … It’s out there, it’s in Loudoun County, and I think this is going to continue and they’ll find another reason to hate next year.”
She then recognized that LCPS staff had already properly acknowledged their “communication gaffes,” adding that board members “don’t need to beat up staff again for that.”
After briefly echoing Rose’s sentiments, Turgeon aired her frustration with the bitterness sometimes exhibited by the public regarding the School Board’s objectives, citing a hotly debated charter school application the board received several years ago.
“There were a lot of people out in the audience who didn’t want us to approve that application, and they were full of hate. We saw that. As a committee, though, we were able to look objectively at the reasons why not to approve that charter, none of which was based on the hate that was being emulated from some of the groups,” she said. “None of the decisions that we make or the votes that we take come from hate, and I can guarantee that.”
Perhaps most outspoken on the matter was Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles District), who criticized any generalizations made within the debate.
“If you ever make the comment, ‘All blank are blank,’ there’s a problem with that statement, and you can fill in that with a person or books or religion or anything, and that is a false statement. When I hear the comment that, ‘Oh, it’s all about hate, that’s the only reason those people are against those books,’ that’s not true. There are people with deep moral convictions that hold strongly to their faith, and [if] you don’t agree with their faith that’s fine, but that is their belief, and we support all of our communities and all of our religions and all faiths,” Morse said.
Morse referenced a textbook recommendation LCPS staff redacted earlier this year to argue that questionable content does indeed make its way into school collections, and that review is sometimes necessary.
“Don’t tell us that there aren’t cases where there is material going out to the students that shouldn’t be. Whether it’s against a religion or whether it’s against a value system, or whether it’s just perverse information or glorified sex, there are a lot of things that are out there that should not be going into the classroom,” he said.
The chairman further suggested that the Curriculum and Instruction Committee look into the possibility of giving parents who take issue with certain reading materials with an opt-out option.
Croll defended her prior comments by saying to “hide behind the guise of moral conviction … to criticize a characteristic, an immutable characteristic about another student or staff member or human being for that matter is reprehensible. I don’t think it’s even, I don’t think both sides are expressing hate. What I heard was a population being attacked and representatives trying to defend that population. So this is not an even argument to me.”
She also encouraged newly elected board members, several of whom were present, to “start reading [the challenged titles], because I have a feeling you’re going to have to weigh in on this stuff too.”
Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) was the last to comment on public discourse, concurring largely with Croll.
“I, too, am uncomfortable defending some of what we’ve heard, especially some of the emails we got … because they are hateful, and they do call out the LGBTQ books. So to defend that as moral conviction I find offensive, because what it really is is a judgment of someone else based on who they are and who they love,” Sheridan said.
She brought to the meeting two children’s picture books available in the diverse libraries, “My Princess Boy” by Cheryl Kilodavis and “Prince & Knight” by Daniel Haack, both of which have been subject to numerous requests for reconsideration and division-level reviews.
“They’re kids’ books, they’re fairy tales, and they’re LGBTQ, and they’re for the kids who need to read them,” she said. “There’s nothing graphic in these, there are no bad words in these, there’s no sex, there’s nothing. It is just a story about a little boy who likes to wear a princess dress and a prince and a knight.”
Sheridan concluded by saying, “It is anti-LGBTQ when it comes to some of these book challenges.”
Beth Huck (At-Large) was absent from the meeting.
A video of the entire meeting is available at vimeo.com/372727489.