School Board approves committee to evaluate challenged books

By Heather Michon

October’s controversy over nearly two dozen books in the Fluvanna County High School library collection has spawned a new body: the Learning Resource Review Committee.

School Board members unanimously approved the formation of the committee at their meeting Wednesday night (Nov. 8).

During the October meeting, a group of residents led by then School Board candidate Brittany Gray challenged a variety of titles, primarily due to sexually explicit content. A later analysis revealed most of the books had not circulated in recent years and others were missing from the collection. All titles were pulled from the shelves pending evaluation.

The schools have long had an internal committee structure of educators and librarians to evaluate challenged materials. Now, each School Board member will be able to appoint a representative from their district who will join the school’s principal, librarian, divisional instructional specialist, and PTO representative.

In the past, the person who made the complaint was also able to join the committee, but it is not clear they would need to be involved in the new process.

Committee members would be required to read the challenged book, investigate reviews and other selection criteria, discuss the material, and make a decision on whether to retain or remove it from the collection. Their decision would be open to appeal to the superintendent, and ultimately, to the School Board itself.

“Whoever serves on this committee is going to make a decision and potentially be the subject of a lot of public discussion and maybe criticism,” cautioned Superintendent Peter Gretz. 

While the current committee has never operated in secrecy, the new structure would be much more open. The committee would have to publish notices of their meetings, which would be open to the public. All correspondence and documentation would be subject to a public records request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

While all members agreed to the committee in principle, there were some points of tension, particularly over whether challenged books should be pulled from the collection pending review. While Dr. Gretz had removed the books challenged in October, he noted that it wasn’t a set policy to do so in all cases.

Andrew Pullen (Columbia District) favored removing books the moment they were challenged, arguing this is something they had done in the recent past.

Over the last couple of years, “there were books that we privately pulled…I mean, we literally called and said, hey, I just got notification that this book is on the shelves and it was pulled immediately.”

“These books were a given,” he added, “like, they can’t be there.”

Pullen did not detail how many or which books were pulled from the schools or whether they later went through the formal review process. 

Later in the discussion, he reiterated that challenged books were something he would like to see be handled “quietly.”

“Then it doesn’t bring up all the community outrage, because the appearance from some people is that we’re banning books, and I won’t think anyone here is suggesting that,” he said. “But this book thing has just become so political.”

Chair James Kelley (Palmyra District) argued that books that deal with challenging topics like sexual orientation, gender identity, and abuse should not unilaterally be pulled because a member of the community objected.

“If we just went to a library and plucked a book from the shelves every time that we think it’s inappropriate, we are censoring and banning books,” he said. “It’s the same thing.”

The discussion ended with the understanding that details on how members would be selected and appointed and how often the committee would need to meet would have to be sorted out at a later date, but the motion to create the Learning Resource Review Committee passed on a vote of 5-0.

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