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How does Hanover County Public Schools' book ban work?

A group of books sits on a library shelf. The four closest to the camera are "Haunted" by Chuck Palahniuk, "Lucky" by Alice Sebold, "Identical" by Ellen Hopkins and "Tilt" by Ellen Hopkins
Connor Scribner
VPM News
Four books recently banned from Hanover school libraries are seen at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Hanover's School Board recently voted to remove 17 books from the schools' library system.

After hours of public comment, the school board approved an expedited policy to remove books from school and classroom libraries.

Members of Hanover County’s appointed school board approved an alteration to administrative policy that expedites the removal of books from school libraries.

The new policy outlines the procedure by which books are challenged, reviewed and removed by the school board and school administrators, on the basis of their content being deemed age inappropriate, pervasively vulgar, obscene or sexually explicit. Those definitions come from the Virginia Code.

Parents and guardians across the county voiced concerns prior to this meeting, saying that this procedure makes it easier for parents, or any resident of Hanover, to ban books from school and classroom libraries.

The school board heard from 46 public speakers about the policy prior to its scheduled vote. While there was a clear vocal majority against the proposed policy, there were also residents who voiced concerns over vulgar or even pornographic material contained in Hanover's schools.

Despite hours’ worth of concerns, the policy was approved by a 5–2 vote.

Ola Hawkins of the Ashland District and Robert Hundley of the Chickahominy Districts were the two dissenting voters. Mechanicsville’s John Redd, South Anna’s Bob May, Cold Harbor’s Steven Ikenberry and outgoing appointees George Sutton (Henry) and John Axselle III (Beaverdam) voted in favor.

At the board’s May 9 meeting, Ikenberry identified 17 books he said he personally reviewed and deemed unfit for Hanover’s schools. He spoke in favor of implementing the proposed policy again on Tuesday.

Using a power newly granted by the policy, the board also voted unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting to ban those 17 and two more from school libraries.

“We have a lot of work to do to clean up our school libraries, and to ensure that our teachers have their libraries clean,” Ikenberry said.”We're not trying to ban ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ We're not trying to ban anything.”

As VPM News previously reported, Ikenberry said last week that 17 of these books “are age-inappropriate, they have zero educational value or suitability. Zero. None. … This is not happy reading by any stretch of the imagination.”

Chairperson John Axselle III, who also voted in favor of the policy, said the materials were inappropriate for school children.

“This material is not good for the children,” Axselle said on Tuesday, in reference to the books Ikenberry alluded to. “The actual books aren't good for the children. That's it, bottom line.”

Axselle and Sutton are set to retire at the end of June.

How are library books selected?

First the policy defines what role Hanover’s school libraries and media centers play in enriching and supporting students.

As defined, libraries are to provide materials that will provide factual information about a wide range of views, religions and cultural groups and their contribution to the American heritage, so that students “may develop the practice of critical reading and thinking.”

Before the policy was revised, it also stated that school libraries should “place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice in the selection of materials of the highest quality in order to assure a comprehensive collection appropriate for the users of the libraries/media centers.”

That clause has since been removed to the dismay of residents like June Bohrer of the Chickahominy District, who spoke during the board’s public comment period.

“You [the board] say that you want to promote critical thinking skills, but this omission makes me suspicious that you're actually looking for a means to limit access to material, by and about minorities, distasteful parts of our history, and difficult social issues,” Bohrer said.

“Critical Thinking cannot be taught without informational literacy, the analysis of diverse perspectives and evidence and toleration for ambiguity,” she added.

The provision also requires Hanover librarians and teachers to follow the new definition as well as objectives and criteria outlined by the school board when selecting materials.

The policy also states no book should contain, “materials that contain sexually explicit content,” as defined by the Code of Virginia, or content with “pervasive vulgarity” — a phrase that is not defined by the policy as written or any state code.

If a teacher or librarian wants to acquire books which contain such materials, that book must be approved by the school board, following a recommendation from the Library Review Materials Committee.

The committee is made up of seven Hanover residents, one from each magisterial district, along with the school district’s assistant superintendent of instructional leadership or a designee. Committee members are appointed by the school board each August for one-year terms with no term limits.

The school board is appointed in a similar manner by the county's Board of Supervisors.

Parents like Suzanne Gallagher of Mechanicsville questioned why she should trust her elementary school children’s reading material to people who may not hold the same professional certifications and standards as their teachers.

“I'm trusting the [teachers] to protect my child in an emergency. I sure as heck trust them to pick out an appropriate book for my students,” Gallagher said.

Additionally, the policy requires that the curriculum and library media specialist assemble a list of professional materials approved by the school board that will be used for the upcoming school year.

Classroom teachers are required to provide their principal with a list of all books and magazines located in their classroom libraries, and such lists must be updated to reflect any new addition. Kim Cately, a mother of a first grader in Mechanicsville, described that process as an undue burden for school teachers.

“I worry that our highly rated school system — one that many of us, myself included, have moved here for —will suffer because of this added burden is the final straw that leads some of our beloved teachers and staff to leave,” Cately said.

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.

How books can be removed now

Any parent or guardian of a Hanover County Public Schools’ student, school employee or resident of Hanover may file a challenge regarding any material located in a school’s comprehensive library. However, they may only do so if the challenger believes the book contains sexually explicit or pervasively vulgar content.

Any challenge raised on this basis must cite excerpts from the book and clearly identify how this material violates the school’s provisions.

The challenge should be filed with the principal of the school where the book is located. Then, the school’s librarian and principal will determine the validity of the challenge within seven business days, absent extenuating circumstances.

If the both parties agree the challenge is suitable, the challenged material will be removed from circulation. If not, the challenged book will be considered by the Library Materials Committee and remain in circulation until its review.

After review, the committee will make a recommendation to the school board as to whether or not the book should remain in circulation. The school board will then make its final decision.

But the school board can supersede said process, as the provision gives its members the express right and sole discretion to remove any and all materials from libraries, classrooms, school buildings or the entire division by majority vote. And Hanover exercised that sole discretion immediately after approving the policy.

Because the phrase pervasively vulgar is not defined by the written guidelines, high school student Josephine Kronenberg expressed her fear that this policy could be misused to do away with diverse ideologies under the guise that the content is “inappropriate.”

“My fear is not that truly sexually explicit and vulgar material — that is inappropriate for the age of a particular student — will be prohibited, but that what is judged sexually explicit or inappropriate will be based on not the words on the page, but the ideas conveyed,” she said.

Kronenberg said she was especially concerned about books focused on the experiences of people who are Black or brown, women, part of the LGBTQ+ community or otherwise from a marginalized collective.

A statement provided by a spokesperson from the Virginia ACLU mirrors Kronenberg’s sentiments.

“The First Amendment doesn't end at the classroom door,” the statement read. “Our schools' job is to encourage learning, not gag students and educators from exchanging ideas. It's deeply troubling that a growing number of school boards in Virginia are taking power away from parents who want their children to learn by passing policies that will censor classrooms and libraries.”

Ikenberry stressed that the policy could be amended going forward.

“This is the starting line,” Ikenberry said. “It might not be the finish line.”

For teachers like Austin Miller, an English instructor at Ashland’s Patrick Henry High School, broaching topics concerning race, sexual assault and multicultural differences has become a more bureaucratic process.

“The world outside of school can be a complicated and scary place,” Miller said. “Teachers are often students' first line of defense against the trials of adolescence. Policy 6-5.2 will only work to further complicate our ability to instruct, engage with and protect our students.”

Banned books in Hanover County Public Schools

  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah Maas
  • A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah Maas
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
  • Choke by Chuck Palahnuik
  • Flamer by Mike Curato
  • Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Identical by Ellen Hopkins
  • Infandous by Elana Arnold
  • Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • Lucky by Alice Sebold
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
  • Red Hood by Elana Arnold
  • Sold by Patricia McCormick
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
  • Tilt by Ellen Hopkins
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
  • Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen
Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.