WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?
DEMOCRACY IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT
Ignoring calls from the community to focus on achievement gaps, the Madison County School Board approved banning 21 books from the Madison County High School Library at its first meeting of the calendar year on January 12.
Voting for the banning were newly-elected chair Nita Collier, newly-elected vice chair Christopher Wingate, and newly-elected board member Greg Martz. Board member Charlie Sheads Jr. was absent, and board member Karen Allen abstained.
The books are:
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- Shatter Me series of 6 books by Tahereh Mafi (Defy Me, Ignite Me, Restore Me, Shatter Me, Imagine Me, Unravel Me)
- Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Sula by Toni Morrison
- Love by Toni Morrison
- The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
- Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
- Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
- Empire of Storms by Sarah Maas
- Bag of Bones by Stephen King
- 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King
- It by Stephen King
- Furyborn by Claire Legrand
Background to the board’s decision
Last year, after Wingate reportedly received a list of “unacceptable” books from Focus in the Family, an ultra-conservative family-values organization in Colorado Springs, he compared the list with the holdings of the Madison County High School library.
He found 26 titles that matched the list and met in early September with librarian Charlotte Wood and demanded that the books be removed from the shelves and segregated for check-out only with parents’ permission.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in April 2022 requiring schools to notify parents if any instructional materials contain sexually explicit content, and to provide procedures for parents to opt out of any such materials.
The Virginia Department of Education notified school boards in August 2022 of their responsibility to adopt a policy in accordance with the law before January 1, 2023.
The notice included a draft policy recommended for adoption by school boards.
Emboldened by the law and DOE notice, Wingate drafted his own restrictive policy to include books in school libraries, even though the DOE notice specifically stated: “the provisions of this act shall not be construed as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”
The Madison County School Board unanimously approved the restrictive policy at its December 2022 meeting.
Are these books available to check out in Madison County?
When Wingate first proposed removing the books from the high school library, the Madison County Public Library confirmed it had the entire 26 books first proposed to be banned.
Now, with the revised list of 21 books, the county library – based on the library’s online catalog search option –has all but Furyborn available.
Friday, a library spokersperson said they have ordered Furyborn. It will arrive later this month and will be available for circulation.
At the October school board meeting, five members of the public spoke in support of the board’s intent to ban the books from the school library. Eleven members of the public spoke against the board’s intent, most opining that the decision on which books can be checked out of the high school library should be left to the parents.
Two high school students spoke in favor of allowing students to make the decisions on what books they read, and Wood informed those present that the librarian can use the Destiny catalog software to restrict access to any book according to the parent’s instruction.
At the November school board meeting, seven members of the public spoke in support of the board’s direction, while three members of the public propounded parents’ rights over school board control of library materials. There were no public comments on library books at the December school board meeting.
At the Thursday night’s meeting, no one from the public spoke in favor of the board’s newly-adopted policy, but two members of the public voiced opinions against the board’s direction.
Devlyn D’Alfonso of Radiant, said she is strongly opposed to the book banning policy passed at the previous meeting, while the board is ignoring problems in our schools such as achievement gaps, bullying, racism, and stress/mental health.
She proposed a public forum for the board to listen to teachers and students about what really concerns them. Corina Barden of Wolftown, reminded the board of the separation of church and state and said that this is a public school system, not a theocracy.
“We don’t get to force our religious views on anyone else, and we don’t get to limit what kids can read based on someone else’s beliefs,” Barden said. “how far will this line of thinking go?”
What does the law say?
The Supreme Court of the United States said in 1982 that schools boards cannot ban books from school libraries.
“In the Supreme Court’s Pico decision, a plurality of four justices took the students’ side on the case while four other justices agreed with the school board’s position.
Justice William Brennan said in his plurality opinion that school boards could not determine the content of school libraries based on their own personal political ideology. He quoted the court’s landmark West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette and Tinker v. Des Moinesdecisions in reiterating that students have limited First Amendment rights within the school context, and that “the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students.” The school library, Justice Brennan added, is the principal locus of student freedom “to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.”
What does the Madison School Board say?
In prefacing his proposal to remove 21 books from the high school library, Wingate noted that he has screened all the books to see if they contain sexually-explicit language within the definition of the Code of Virginia.
His sole intent is to protect children. He also said that the policy passed in December had received “legal review several times”.
In explaining her vote to abstain, Allen said that she has been doing a lot of reading on book banning and censoring. She agrees that some of the listed books are sexually explicit or violent, but opined that some are on the borderline.
She had just watched the Today Show with Judy Blume, author of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” which had been heavily challenged when it was published in 1970, for its frank talk about menstruation and its negative portrayal of Christian characters.
However, Allen noted that times have changed, which is borne out by the movement of Blume’s book from 60 of the most challenged 100 books in the 1990s, to 99 of 100 in the 2000s, and is no longer on the list, according to the American Library Association.
Allen also noted there are bills pending in the Virginia General Assembly to have certain books put in certain sections of the library so that parents can decide. She said she was in a quandary on how to vote, so she abstained.