Fauquier County School Board plans to revise policies around books containing ‘sexually explicit content’

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

The Fauquier County School Board announced Monday it has begun the process of revising its policies around students’ exposure to “sexually explicit content” in libraries and classrooms across the school division.

School leaders could have updated guidelines available for the community to review as early as October, according to Deputy Superintendent Major Warner.

During the board’s Sept. 12 regular meeting, Cedar Run District representative Donna Grove said the school system plans to adopt more comprehensive policies around students’ ability to access library books based on concerns from parents and recent legislation passed by the General Assembly.

“The Board recognizes and hears the concern about increased input for parents around some of the content of what is in our libraries and schools and acknowledges that it is time to have a more meaningful dialogue,” she said during the meeting. “We have seen and heard of legislative changes and believe the time is right to move forward, and we can and will work together on this issue.”

The board’s announcement comes several months after the parent activist group Moms for Liberty launched a campaign criticizing the school system’s book selection process, policy guidelines surrounding “sexually explicit content” and procedures for book reviewing and removal from school libraries and curriculum.

Several group members, including Amie Bowman, a Scott District resident and the treasurer of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, have accused school librarians of not using a “strict test of literary merit” or clearly defining specific criteria used to evaluate books. Bowman and others claimed the book review process is too drawn out and could possibly take years.

Since June, the group has requested Kettle Run High School remove over a dozen books from its library.

Grove argued many of those books were written after the board adopted its current policies. Nevertheless, she acknowledged on Monday the division’s guidelines need to be updated.

“If you’ve come to our meetings, you know that we are constantly reviewing, updating, and revising policies,” Grove said. “It’s time to have that discussion about the revision of these policies.”

Parents’ concerns are only part of the picture. In April, the General Assembly passed legislation directing the Virginia Department of Education to create new “model policies” in which school systems are required to notify parents when instructional material containing “sexually explicit content” will be used. Schools are also mandated to provide alternative material that does not contain explicit content if requested. All Virginia school boards must adopt new guidelines “consistent” with these policies by Jan. 1, 2023.

Warner told the board that staff is in the “beginning stages” of drafting new policies, which he hopes to present to the community by October or November.

At least one school within the county has already been tinkering with students’ access to library materials.

While no system-wide guidelines have been revealed to the public, Auburn Middle School families were given a glimpse into what kind of policies the school system may be considering.

In August, Auburn Principal Matt Yonkey implemented a new policy whereby parents were required to sign an “Auburn Library Book Access Form” stating their child had permission to access all books in the library.

In the original permission slip sent out on Aug. 25, Yonkey stated that unless parents completed the form, the school would “limit your student’s choices to materials that review for his or her specific grade level.”

Yonkey later reversed course, telling families in an email that due to the “overwhelming responses from parents,” he decided to amend the policy to allow any student to access library books “by default.”

“We are moving away from an opt-out strategy to an opt-in strategy to give more flexibility,” Yonkey said in an email to Auburn families on Aug. 31. “In other words, if a parent does not complete the form, their child may access any [Auburn Middle School Library] Library book as has been the case in years past.”

According to the updated form, parents have the option to restrict their children from checking out books that are not approved for their grade level or lower.

Who determines age-appropriateness?

Librarians are not the ones determining whether a book is grade or age appropriate, and it is not clearly outlined in Fauquier’s Library Material’s Selection policy what criteria is used to determine age or grade level appropriateness.

Instead, school librarians base age and grade level appropriateness on what American Library Association-recommended book review websites say.

The association states the grade or age level assigned to a book is based on “reading level, style, subject interest, and appeal.”

Whenever a book is reviewed, it’s separated by general age groups, including “older readers” (grades 7-12), “middle readers” (grades 3-6) and “the young” (preschool-2nd grade).

When a reviewer hired by a book review website assigns a grade level for any book, the main considerations, according to the association, are whether its “literary quality and content suitable to the interests and needs of children and young adults from preschool through high school.”

According to Tara Helkowski, director of communications and community engagement at Fauquier County Public Schools, 89 families had completed the online form, with 10 opting for their child/children to only have access to grade/age level material as of Sept. 6. Auburn has approximately 600 students currently enrolled.

When asked if Yonkey consulted with the school division administration before implementing the policy, Helkowski told FauquierNow that Yonkey did not need permission seeing as his actions did not violate school board policy.

“Parents have always had the ability to restrict which books their children check out,” she said. “They simply have to contact the librarian at the appropriate school.”

Helkowski did not say whether the division planned to implement Auburn’s new policy across the county. She noted the School Board would need to consult with its attorney before making any policy revisions.

Scott District resident Anne Burhans said during Monday’s meeting that while she is against the idea of removing books from school libraries altogether, she sympathizes with parents who want more discretion over what their child is exposed to at school.

“Parents who have said their child is not ready for young adult books can opt their child out with a librarian. That’s a reasonable accommodation that doesn’t deprive all students of books,” she said.

Scott District resident Josh Erdossy, who is running for a School Board seat this November and is also the husband of local Moms for Liberty Vice Chair Natalie Erdossy, said what the board needs to consider is the idea of parental “consent.”

“One of the most important lessons any kid can learn, just like when a movie is shown in a classroom, parental consent is required as requested,” he said. “I feel confident that your approach to including parents, hopefully from all walks of life throughout our community, will ensure we get a policy and process that takes that into consideration.”

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