By Amira Zaidi
An effort by school administrators to broaden the diversity of characters in books offered through classroom libraries continues to draw objections from parents, and during their meeting on Tuesday, School Board also raised questions about the initiative.
For the third consecutive meeting, there was a large contingent of speakers against the placement of diverse classroom libraries in Loudoun County schools, with many reading aloud sex scenes included in some of the books and quoting passages featuring foul language.
Speakers in support of these books emphasized that the collections included award-winning novels that reflect real-world situations. The protestors, many affiliated with the group Parent and Child Loudoun and wearing green, circulated a list of books with stories around gender identity and LGBTQ diversity like, ‘My Princess Boy’, ‘So Hard To Say’, ‘Prince and The Knight’, ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ and ‘Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit,’ which one parent said contains the f-word 49 times. Many parents used explicit language while quoting lines from the books, showing anger to the school board for allowing the placement of these books. One mother broke down in tears.
Supporters of the program said it was important to have the material available to students.
“These books were carefully selected by librarians, teachers, school administrators and many other parties to be used as an option and supplement collections that already feature largely white and heteronormative characters. No student will be required to read these books, but it’s vitally important that they remain in our schools,” said one school librarian.
While the criticism and defense of the books has played out over several weeks, Tuesday was the first time school leaders responded to the controversy in a public setting. Superintendent Eric Williams said there should have been more communication with the public before rolling out the program. School Board members raised questions about the need for the program.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) noted that if the lines read out from these books by parents during public comment at this board meeting had to be bleeped out in the telecast, then perhaps they should not be made available to children at school.
“When some of the speakers came forward and they were using language and I had to fight the urge to tell them to stop, as the chair, because here they are, rattling off obscenities in front of the community and on TV, which I’m sure we had to censor on TV, and those are the words that our kids are reading? I’ve got a real problem with that. “
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) also questioned whether the material was appropriate for the classroom.
“We are called the loco parentis [in the place of a parent] and when these books are available at public libraries and elsewhere, is it necessary for us to have the same books in our schools when they can be purchased at a bookstore or borrowed from a library, especially if they have very graphic language in them?” he said. “I’m perplexed about where I fit in this because I am against censorship, but I do think it’s not our role to expose children to such graphic language, unless there is somehow a justification because of the empathy or artistry in those books.”
Some parents warned that they would consider home-schooling their children if these books were not removed. An elementary-school mother said, “I am upset that I was not informed correctly, have no say in these books that my eight-year old can easily obtain and I have no method of opting out. My kids will not be your experiments. These books need to be re-labeled and clearly have the contents reviewed.”
Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ashley Ellis acknowledged that “we should’ve communicated earlier and with more specifics with principals, parents and the school board,” but she also said the diversity libraries are important. “LCPS wants to provide resources for every student, not just students or families with certain points of view.”
Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said she appreciated the effort to make more diverse material available in classrooms, but said context was important in the discussion. “When you’re talking about books that have starred reviews from various library associations for schools and then you’re calling them out as something that is inappropriate for schools, the fact that you’re calling those out when its discussing something like a student who is identifying himself as gay and that’s the one you’re choosing, to me that is disingenuous. I fully understand the references to things that are assigned e.g. ‘The Kite Runner,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ‘Beloved,’ there are really horrible stories in books that are great literature, including the Bible.”
Chris Croll (Catoctin) also placed emphasis on context. She questioned whether the explicit language read by parents have instructional and education value in the full context of the book, potentially ending up with completely different meaning. She said board members had received emails about real life experiences where students have made special connections through books. She highlighted the case of a student who read about a rape in a book and was raped a few years later. “The mother sent us a note saying that that book saved her daughter’s life because she could relate to the character in that book,” Croll said.
The School Board’s Curriculum & Instruction Committee is expected to take up the issue at a future meeting.