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Hanover re-enters the book ban battleground

Blond person stands and remarks to school board members
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
A community member gives remarks as Vice Chair Bob May, Steven Ikenberry, John E. Redd Jr., and George Sutton listen during a Hanover County Public School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 9.

The school board is set to vote Tuesday on a policy that more easily pulls reading material from libraries. 

The Hanover County School Board is preparing to vote on a new policy to remove books deemed “inappropriate” for public school libraries.

The board unveiled this policy draft during its May 9 meeting — where parents, students, librarians and members of the public criticized the proposed changes. The new policy would give any parent, student or Hanover resident the agency to challenge a book and have it immediately removed from school libraries until it’s reviewed.

Under the current rules, any initial complaint underwent multiple tiers of review; the school board made the final determination on removal.

Hanover’s policy specifies four tiers of review when a book is challenged:

  1. Conference with principal;
  2. Local school review committee;
  3. Instructional material review committee;
  4. School board review and final vote

That process was invoked when it opted to keep A Place Inside of Me on library shelves last June.

Proposed changes target books that contain “pervasive vulgarities” and “sexually explicit” material, neither of which were defined in the original May draft. However Steve Ikenberry, who represents the Cold Harbor District, delivered a list of examples that may fall under the provision.

“These are books that are age-inappropriate, they have zero educational value or suitability. Zero. None,” Ikenberry said on May 9. “This is not happy reading by any stretch of the imagination.”

Ikenberry listed 17 books during his comments, including the novels Choke and Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk; A Court of Silver Flames and A Court of Mist & Fury by Sarah J. Maas; and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which has been the subject of scrutiny in other areas of Virginia.

That list also included Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Looking for Alaska by John Green, both of which have been adapted for film and television.

Graphic novels and illustrated materials were also listed, like Flamer by Mike Curato, which depicts the author’s struggle to find himself and define his sexual identity while combating the everyday anxieties of a young person.

Under the revision, library material would undergo a three-step review process involving the Local School Review Committee, the Instruction Material Committee and the board — which would make the final call.

“We’re not banning books,” Ikenberry said in May. “We're trying to clean stuff up a little bit.”

Over a dozen speakers spoke against the proposed policy at the May 9 meeting, as it follows a familiar playbook to book policies proposed across the country.

The 'war on books' as it stands

An analysis from the Washington Post uncovered that attempts to protect children from being exposed to sexual content resulted in the removal of LGBTQ+ material and books that discuss racism from school libraries.

In partnership with the advocacy group PEN America — a nonprofit that examines free expression and the advancement of literature — they analyzed more than 1,065 book complaints in 100 school districts across 37 states

The Post’s analysis found that 43% of filings targeted titles with LGBTQ+ characters or themes, while 36% targeted titles that featured characters of color or dealt with issues of race and racism.

The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61% of challenges referenced this concern, according to the Post.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published an investigation in 2022 that revealed Virginia school districts are pulling books from school libraries with the same themes and materials.

Hanover parents like Suzanne Gallagher, who was relatively uninvolved with the board’s procedures before, told VPM News she became more engaged as the county rekindled book ban debates.

“This policy in particular was just a little bit frightening,” said Gallagher. “It seemed very extreme of a policy and also very vague. That’s when I started paying attention.”

Gallagher said part of the reason she and her partner moved from Henrico to Hanover was its school system. With two children enrolled in elementary school, she hopes the board focuses its attention elsewhere.

“I really don't know enough to speak to the school board as a whole, but they've done good things,” said Gallagher. “They've made increases to teacher salaries, they've been trying to find additional funds to bring in mental health resources. I really want them to continue to focus on sending a message supporting our students, not focusing on things that are political.”

Books displayed with caution tape over them
Ryan Murphy
VPM News
The banned books display at Prince Books in Norfolk, as seen on Aug. 25, 2022. The bookstore had joined filings pushing back against the restriction of book sales to minors.

‘Books are what open doors’

Having heard concerns from parents like Gallagher, the school board held a June 6 work to revise portions of the draft policy.

This revision gives individual principals and school librarians a final determination before books are removed from circulation and expedites the process by which books are reviewed by the three-tier system, so that no one person has the authority to remove a book.

Charles Swinford, the parent of a rising fourth grader in Hanover, told VPM News that he’s still concerned about what message this sends to students who are exploring new ideas, cultures or topics.

“I think something like this sends a message that maybe we don’t support the kids actually finding new information,” Swinford said. “Books are what opens doors. They help you understand the way other people work, the way that the world works. To close that off is the fastest way to raise an ignorant population.”

A portion of the proposal also states that teachers should catalog their own classroom books for review. Kristin Stevens, the mother of a graduating Hanover High student and rising Atlee High freshman, told VPM News this puts an undue burden on instructors.

“Asking for teachers to basically make an index of their classroom libraries, teachers who I know who’ve been teaching for decades and have extensive libraries,” Stevens said. “That’s an added workload on our teachers.

Stevens said she’s grateful that even if books are removed from a school library, she has the means to purchase it for her own children. But she acknowledged there are parents who don’t have the same privilege.

“This policy is not going to directly affect my child in the school system, because if there's a book that we need we have the means to get it,” Stevens said. “Not all students in our country have that same kind of access.”

Both Stevens and Swinford said the recent draft policy has improved, but it still needs tweaking to ensure students who want to explore the ideas presented to them can do so.

As the board next meets on June 13, Swinford hopes they do the right thing and delay the vote before making “a disappointing mistake.”

“Just the opportunity to learn needs to be there,” said Swinford. “It's up to the kids and the parents to reach out and take it, but to take the opportunity away — it's kind of the opposite of what our schools are supposed to do.”

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.
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