Tuesday night’s Loudoun County School Board meeting ran for nearly six hours, thanks in part to massive community participation in the debate surrounding diverse classroom libraries.
“I think that that’s probably the longest meeting we’ve ever had, or pretty dang close to it,” Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles District) said before motioning to adjourn at approximately 12:22 a.m.
More than 70 Loudoun County Public Schools parents, students, staff and community members participated in the evening’s public comment, the vast majority commenting on the recently added diverse book collections.
Earlier this year, LCPS implemented the program in an effort to “diversify the books available to students, understanding that the prevalent culture is already represented in our collections,” according to the LCPS English Language Arts website. Newly added books include titles relating to “diverse race, culture, language [and] religion,” as well as disabilities and LGBTQ-related subjects.
Starting last month, however, concerned citizens have publicly addressed content in certain titles that they believe to be gratuitously sexually explicit or graphically violent, referencing works that are available to students as young as kindergarten age. In the weeks since, more and more people have voiced support of maintaining the collection as it currently stands.
The board room was packed Tuesday, with many attendees dressed according to their stances on the matter: those supporting the preservation of diverse classroom libraries dressed in purple; those against the new collection or in favor of its modification wore green.
Members of both factions held up signs during public comment displaying messages such as the following: “Books aren’t sin — hate is,” “LCPS buys pornography,” “Books save lives,” and “Diverse, not perverse.”
Among the ardent proponents for diverse classroom libraries was Farmwell Station Middle School English teacher Jonathan Radow, who was concerned that the School Board would consider eradicating titles with LGBTQ content, an action he firmly called “censorship.”
“If you concede to one group of parents, then you have to consider conceding to every single demand for censorship. Removing all books with LGBTQ content from these classroom libraries because a handful of parents are opposed to their content would be a hugely disproportionate and inappropriate response,” Radow said. “These types of books often reach kids who feel like they have never been heard before in their lives.”
Of a similar opinion was student Rachel Hollinger, who identifies as non-binary and asexual.
“I don’t often see myself represented in the books that we have. I mean, I do, but I’d like to see more. I am not obscene. I don’t understand that,” Hollinger said.
Equally passionate were citizens who advocated for modification or removal of the collection, several of whom recited passages from books that they considered objectionable.
School Board candidates Mike Neely and Ram Venkatachalam — running to represent the Sterling District and Blue Ridge District, respectively — expressed their support for diverse reading material in schools but objected against overtly graphic literature being made available to minors.
“I am calling you to be guardians of our children, my most precious possession. I am all for diversity. I love my LGBT brothers and sisters just as I love everyone of God’s creation. Don’t sit here and use the buzzwords,” Neely said.
“Make no mistake, I like diverse books, but clearly some of the content in there and material are outrageous,” Venkatachalam added. “I would like the current School Board and administration to make sure the books are reviewed, and those that are obscene don’t get to our bookshelves. I’ll ensure to do the same when I am sworn in and get on the School Board in January 2020.”
A number of addresses were met with applause, despite Morse’s numerous reminders to attendees to maintain decorum. Commenters continued to approach the podium until around 8:16 p.m., nearly two hours into the meeting.
Following approval of the consent agenda, Superintendent Eric Williams acknowledged his and LCPS administration’s responsibility for not sufficiently communicating information on the new program to parents and board members, who were not formally notified of the new book collections until September.
"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.
Later in the evening, after the board discussed and voted on several action items including revisions to the LCPS assessment and grading policy, Morse introduced a discussion of the matter as an information item.
“I believe, as do several other board members, that the effort to expand diversity of characters in books offered in our school libraries has resulted in unexpected outcomes," Morse said. "This conversation is not a witch hunt, it is not a book burning. It is merely an effort to clarify or to correct either the process followed or the policy that’s been approved."
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis began by echoing Williams's sentiments that communication to families and the board could have been better handled.
"We notified principals about the diverse library collections at the end of July; they subsequently received suggested language and talking points to share with their parent communities in September when the books were scheduled to arrive," Ellis said. "Clearly, we should’ve communicated earlier and with more specifics, with principals, parents and the School Board.”
Ellis proceeded to delineate several concerns regarding diverse reading materials. She emphasized the following points: diverse literature is not mandatory assigned reading, nor should it be used in instruction "without clear ties to a lesson;" library materials are selected by “library media specialists, reading specialists and district-level library and reading staff in consultation with library experts;" and LCPS Policy 5-7 outlines the procedure for challenging a certain title, which all LCPS parents have the right and ability to do.
According to Ellis, administrators plan to review Policy 5-7 this school year, beginning with staff conversations and recommendations. She also said that LCPS has so far received appeals regarding only one book: "My Princess Boy" by Cheryl Kilodavis, a picture book about a young boy who likes to dress up in traditionally feminine garb.
Ellis then opened the floor to comments and questions from the board, starting with Debbie Rose (Algonkian District), who said she had no intent of book-burning, censorship or eliminating titles that deal with LGBTQ matters.
“Those books should be available to students who are in those categories or would like to learn about that," she said.
However, she still expressed disturbance at the “overt and explicit sexual content that is in some of the books that have been read here. When it crosses over to being duplicitous, harmful and really, really beyond the scope of what’s necessary to discuss LGBTQ issues or other issues of diversity, then we have crossed over.”
Joy Maloney (Broad Run District) disagreed, saying it's easy to condemn books for containing mature content while ignoring the overall context and addressing public commenters who took issue with certain LGBTQ-related titles.
“The fact that you’re calling those out in particular when it’s discussing something like a student who is identifying themselves as gay ... to me it’s disingenuous," she said. She also singled out speakers who recited Bible verses at the podium, referring to Judges 19 — which describes the gang rape, murder and dismemberment of a young woman — and telling listeners to "go reference your Bible if you’d like that as something pulled out of context.”
"I would encourage people who have read the excerpts out loud to read the entire book if you haven’t. I know it’s important to think of things in the entire text; there can be a lot of different meanings and assertions made based on an excerpt," Beth Huck (At-Large) added before encouraging concerned parents to take advantage of the challenge process if they feel compelled to do so.
Students' relatability to and understanding of difficult, complex issues was a primary concern of Chris Croll (Catoctin District), referencing a real-life situation involving a past LCPS pupil.
"There was one example where a student read about a rape and, unfortunately, was raped herself several years later," Croll recalled. "The mother sent us a note saying, 'That book saved my daughter’s life because she could relate to the character in that book, and we were able to use the language in that book to talk about what happened to her.'"
When asked by Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) whether an opt-out process for parents uncomfortable with certain reading materials is delineated in school policy, Ellis said there is nothing specific in writing, though "our teachers are inclined to accommodate parent requests."
"I think it’s a good thing that the policy and regulation is going to be revised before any other books are purchased," Sheridan replied. "Perhaps the opt-out portion can be added to policy or regulation so that parents can have not just a practice, but something that is written down in policy."
Tom Marshall (Leesburg District) opined that LCPS "may have dropped the ball" in the book review process, though Ellis disagreed, saying review committees "did an adequate job using the resources they have and the library experts that we worked with to create these school libraries.” Among resources referenced in the review process are professional assessments published by Kirkus and age-based reviews by Common Sense Media.
When Marshall asked whether Ellis anticipated such an uproarious response to diverse classroom libraries, she simply replied, "No."
Morse rounded out the evening by expressing his distaste with books that he believes "sell [themselves] through sensationalism and graphic terms" while also aiming to tackle important, worthwhile issues.
"We looked at this huge distribution of books. 99 percent … of those books are great. They’re exactly what we need, they’re diversity, they reflect the community and the needs of the children," Morse said. "These [books] are specific to children. These are in an educational environment. We should be educating them, and we should be turning them on to the thrill of reading, but not via sensationalist, graphic sex and violence."
A video of the full Tuesday meeting is available online at vimeo.com/368135621.