NEWARK– Efforts to change library book procedures in Worcester County Public Schools failed this week.
Motions by Worcester County Board of Education member Katie Addis to create a mature books section in school libraries and to give taxpayers the ability to challenge books both failed with no support from other board members. The decisions came after dozens of citizens voiced their support for current policies.
“I urge the board of education to stand firm in its commitment to intellectual freedom, ensuring our schools remain bastions of knowledge and enlightenment,” Berlin parent Tony Weeg said. “Let us collectively reject all attempts to stifle this freedom, understanding that a well-rounded education is firmly built on exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas. We must actively champion the values of tolerance, diversity, and intellectual curiosity. By doing so, we not only enrich the educational experience for our students but also uphold the principles that form the bedrock of a democratic and enlightened society.”
Last month, several people in attendance at the school board’s monthly meeting voiced concerns about sexually explicit books in school libraries. Following that input, Addis told the board she’d like to see taxpayers allowed to challenge books, as currently only parents, guardians, employees and students can lodge formal complaints about books. School board member Jon Andes said he thought the board should consider creation of a mature section for school libraries, as Cecil County did.
In anticipation of those discussions being renewed at this week’s meeting, dozens of citizens provided input related to books within school libraries Tuesday. While some spoke in support of allowing taxpayer complaints and restricting books, the majority said they didn’t want changes to current policies.
“Everyone of our students should have the opportunity to see themselves represented in literature inside our schools,” Dr. Margo Gill said.
Retired teacher Gwen Lehman said she was a taxpayer without children in school but that she didn’t seek the privilege of challenging books. She said she trusted the trained librarians to decided what books to put in school libraries.
Jan Adamchak said she felt changing the book complaint policy would dilute the authority of parents. Pocomoke area parent Emily Moore said she would love to see the board able to spend time on things like under resourced schools rather than questioning the processes put in place by trained professionals. Berlin parent Tom Simon said that in potentially limiting access to certain books, many of which contain LGBTQ characters, officials should consider the fact that LGBTQ youth were more likely to commit suicide than their peers.
“The school may be the only safe space for marginalized youth. Inclusivity should be our goal,” he said.
Speaker Scott Wilkins was one of the commenters who shared concerns about library books. He said he wasn’t trying to wave a broad brush across any group and had friends that were LGBTQ.
“I don’t share my bedroom realities and fantasies with them nor do they share theirs with me,” he said, adding that certain books were too explicit to be in schools.
Newark resident Pat Barbely said there was no place for sexually graphic books in school libraries. She said the argument that readers could potentially identify with the characters in the books wasn’t a valid one.
“This is a misery loves company concept. This does not justify making the books available…” she said. “What if it leads a student to think being sodomized is normal because it’s happened in the books they’ve read in the school libraries?”
Kate McCloskey said restricting access in school libraries wasn’t banning books, as they would still be available for purchase in stores and on websites. She said she’d like to see a restricted section that parents had to give their children permission to enter.
Richard Addis said taxpayers should have the right to challenge books.
“When you tell us we as taxpayers should not have a voice is the highest form of censorship. That is taxation without representation,” he said.
Snow Hill High School sophomore Ellie Zollinger asked the board to think of students as they made their decision.
“Books are not the issue here,” she said. “The issue here is with the people who do not want these books to exist. Students are not being made unsafe by books, students are being made unsafe by bigots.”
Buckingham Elementary School parent Emily Vocke said books were a critical part of a child’s growth. She said she was sick of people trying to destroy the fabric of the local educational system. She said that in the wake of the book complaints voiced at the last school board meeting a group called Worcester United had been formed to support local schools.
“We have been the quiet majority for too long,” she said. “This is just the beginning in making sure our public schools remain a safe space for every child.”
Bishopville parent Kate Hulme questioned whether those complaining about certain books had read them. She added that the books in question were in high school libraries and were recommended for readers 16-plus, which is the age of most high school students.
“Our librarians have spent their lives educating themselves on what is age appropriate to represent our current student bodies,” she said. “I ask you to keep the policy as it stands.”
Following public comments, Coordinator of Instruction Jennifer Sills and Stephen Decatur High School Library Media Specialist Brittany Tignor reviewed Worcester County Public Schools’ existing library procedures. They said the policies were available online for the public to see and had been developed with industry best practices.
Sills expressed concern with allowing taxpayers to initiate formal book complaints, a multi-step process that involves research by staff and creation of a committee to study the book.
“Our current procedure allows school patrons to request a review, it gives those directly involved in the educational process a say,” Sills said. “I’m concerned if we extend this to any resident we’re going to set a precedent that could lead to a disproportionate influence by a minority and not necessarily reflect the values of our student and parent community which is who we should be serving the most.”
She added that as far as a restricted section, creation of such a section would likely be in direct contradiction to best practices from organizations like the American Association of School Librarians. She and Tignor said they were both parents and rather than restrict books felt that parents should be having conversations with their children about what they were reading and what was appropriate in terms of their family values.
Board members thanked them for their presentation. School board member Bill Buchanan asked how many parents restricted books. Sills said a couple of elementary school parents had restricted books last year. She said there hadn’t been any of those requests from high school parents.
Addis made a motion to create a restricted or mature section, similar to what officials did in Cecil County, for middle and high school libraries with an “opt-in” waiver for students who wanted to visit.
School board member Jon Andes said he’d been struggling with balancing the rights of students and the rights of parents while considering the issue of library books.
“I’m still struggling,” he said. “I don’t have an answer.”
School board member Elena McComas said that considering there was already a policy in place she’d like to foster that, making sure parents were aware they could already restrict access to books for their children. Buchanan brought up all the time it would take for someone to review every book in the school libraries. He said there were more than 27,000 books in high school libraries in Worcester County. He also brought up the fact that the school system could be violating Title 9 by restricting access.
“This is getting very murky on this opt-in,” he said. “Do we want to jeopardize a possible legal situation coming out of this?”
School board member Bill Gordy said he felt the parental safeguards were already in place. School board member Donald Smack agreed. Todd Ferrante, chair of the board, said it was ultimately the parent’s responsibility.
“We can do a better job making sure they know what their options are,” he said.
Addis said she wanted to make it clear she wasn’t questioning books because of LGBTQ characters but rather because of their sexual content.
“To me this is not about censorship. This is deciding whether or not these books in question are age appropriate for the minors they’re available to,” she said.
She was the only board member to vote in favor of her motion to create a mature section. Following the vote Ferrante asked staff to come to the next meeting with ideas on how to better educate parents about the existing opportunities that existed for them if they wanted to restrict their child’s access to certain books.
Addis went on to make a second motion to adopt a policy and procedure that would allow taxpayers to make book complaints. Her peers again expressed their disagreement. Gordy said in his view, taxpayers were given a voice when they were able to speak during the public comment portion of every meeting. He said there had been hours of taxpayer input during Tuesday’s meeting.
Buchanan said stakeholders able to weigh in should be those with a vested interest, such as students and parents.
“Being an opinion holder does not give you the right to chart an educational direction,” he said.
Ferrante said he felt there was already a court case that addressed the issue. Heather Stansbury, the board’s attorney, said the issue was very nuanced.
“We should not govern entirely always by the threat of a lawsuit but we should always bear in mind the law,” she said.
Addis’s motion failed, as she was the only board member to vote in support of it.