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After book removal, library policy up for adoption by Roanoke County School Board

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The Roanoke County School Board is set to vote on an updated media policy Thursday which would make it harder for librarians to add books to school collections, while also expanding the power of parents to potentially remove them.

The matter comes after a book, “When Aidan Became a Brother,” was removed from Herman L. Horn Elementary last year, amid debate.

The new proposed policy presented by the administration for board consideration differs from the one proposed by a committee of librarians to the administration, particularly in regards to how books are added to catalogs and how they may be removed.

Currently, librarians have the ability to add to their collection using “reputable, professional selection aids, such as professional review journals, core collection tools and conference presentations when selecting media for vetting,” according to the school system’s policy guide.

Under the proposed policy set to be adopted Thursday, two librarians at the elementary level and one at the middle and high school level, would have to read every book and write a review on it before even being considered for the collection.

Additionally, once the librarians at their educational level read the review, all of them must agree the book is appropriate for adding to the collection before it is eligible for purchase, pending a two-week period of parent review, according to county documents.

This method of adding books to collections is not policy in the Roanoke City, Salem or Montgomery County school systems, which are not as restrictive as the proposed Roanoke County policy, per a review of each system’s procedures by The Roanoke Times.

A retired librarian for the Roanoke County school system, Beth Via, said the new procedures would put librarians in an unmanageable situation.

“A school can get hundreds of new books per year,” she said. “It is unreasonable to expect them to read every book ordered in addition to their other duties,” Via said.

The other main change to the media policy involves more parental oversight in the form of changing and expanding how the appeals committee process works.

Currently if a parent challenges a book’s validity in a school’s collection, the matter is taken up by three librarians who evaluate the complaint, but can also be appealed again and reviewed by a group of citizens.

Of those appeal committee members - also involving three people - one is selected by the complainant, and one by the principal. The third member is selected from a list of five people provided by a school board member in the district where the complaint is made.

Under the new policy, the second level appeals group would be a group of five citizens with each school board member choosing one committee member.

The committee of librarians proposed a librarian from each school level, a parent not known by the complainant and a teacher who does not know or teach the child of the complainant to be on the second appeals committee.

When asked why the new policy differed so much from the one recommended by the librarian committee, school system spokesman Chuck Lionberger wrote in an email the librarians "were interested in eliminating any appeals of book challenges beyond the level of librarians."

"This was not consistent with current policy and did not align with the direction of the school board," Lionberger wrote, also noting the proposed collaboration among librarians was a good thing, as opposed to letting a single librarian add books to the school they serve.

He did not address how the extra workload might be handled, or what template the administration used when superseding the librarian committee's recommendations.

Last month, county School Board Chairman David Linden said the board had very limited input on the policy changes proposed by administration.

Lionberger also noted earlier this week parents currently have the ability to tell school officials if there are any books they do not want their children checking out or reading.   

Parents who disagree with the policy have expressed concern on social media, calling it a form of censorship and a move in the wrong direction for the school system.

Last November, “When Aidan Became a Brother,” was  removed from Herman L. Horn after a parent initiated the complaint.

The book is about a transgender boy wanting to be a good brother to his new sibling, and according to school system documents, the mentioning of gender identity in the book is what led to the complaint.

“Our major objection to this book is that the theme of the book is not developmentally appropriate for most elementary-age children who have never been introduced to the idea that people may be anything other than their biological sex,” part of the parental complaint form reads.

“A child who innocently picks up this book out of the library collection will likely become quite confused and possibly traumatized.”

The librarian appeals committee disagreed with the parental concerns, stating the book had merit and represents kids in schools, stating the removal of the book based on controversial issues was “censorship.”

“The kindness and compassion in the book is moving,” the rebuttal by the librarians stated. “Representation is important so students can see themselves within the books in the library collection. This book is a good catalyst to opening the doors.”

The parent appealed the librarians' decision, writing in an email rebuttal, “common sense” needed to be brought into the equation.

“It is apparent from their response that someone outside of their field should have input in this process,” wrote the parent.

The school system then followed procedure and an appeals committee composed of three community members overruled the decision, and the book was removed from circulation.

On the citizen's appeals committee was Kellay Harnish, Matt Robertson and Kevin Tuck, according to RCPS documents.

Now “When Aidan Became A Brother” is only available for parents to check out from the guidance office at Horn Elementary, Lionberger said.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the proposed policy at Thursday's meeting, where parents who wish to speak for or against the changes will have the opportunity to do so. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the Administration Building at 5937 Cove Road. Those willing to speak are asked to sign up prior to the meeting.

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Sam Wall covers Roanoke County and Salem. He can be reached at (540) 981-3356 or sam.wall@roanoke.com

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