Local proponents for and against potential book banning in Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) voiced their concerns during the Warren County School Board’s community participation segment Wednesday, April 6 meeting.
While no books have been banned in the school division at this time, according to WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger, residents expressed opinions to School Board members in reaction to a local newspaper article about a related parent complaint, as well as public Facebook comments posted by board member Melanie Salins.
For instance, according to Erin Kennedy, a Happy Creek District resident, and parent of a WCPS student, “In the [Facebook] post Miss Salins asserts that the secondary libraries host graphic erotic adult fiction, suggesting the materials are smut. Though I am not one of the district’s excellent school librarians, I still find this assertion to be defamatory and offensive. ”
WCPS secondary librarians ensure that the library shelves are filled with age-appropriate literature and other materials for the division’s oldest students, who are soon getting ready to enter adulthood, Kennedy told the School Board.
“Isolated passages that you deem explicit or graphic, I suggest are not central to the works as a whole and are used by the authors to illustrate the sometimes ugly and very real-world in which they have lived or observed,” said Kennedy. “Further, our students’ social media channels allow them unfettered access to much more objectionable material than we would find on the shelves at either Warren County high school.”
Kennedy questioned from where Salins’ concern originated. “Did a group of parents contact you with sincere worry about the books in our schools’ libraries or are you assuming a problem exists in our schools based on a list of concerning books pushed by a national political action network?” she asked.
“If a large number – say a majority of parents – is coalescing around the notion of removing certain books in our libraries, that would be one thing,” Kennedy continued. “However, I would be dismayed to learn that a school board member manufactured a problem within our community based on political agendas that do not directly impact our students.”
As an American, Kennedy said she celebrates free speech and independent thinking, and she considers their potential removal to be unpatriotic.
“In short, I view trying to remove age-appropriate books from school shelves as censorship,” said Kennedy, who added that she believes parents have the right to choose what’s right for their own children, “but not for mine.”
Janet Brome, a Warren County resident for over 40 years and a former WCPS teacher, said she “saw the efforts to ban books before.”
“Education is designed to expand our horizons and broaden our perspective. Its purpose is not to limit our studies only to those ideals we personally agree with, ”said Brome. “If parents wish to limit their child’s access to certain points of view, then let them do that in their roles as parents without limiting access to what my grandchildren can read in their schools.”
Brome added that banning books about gender and race from public institutions denies people the right to examine the full scope of human existence. “If what you believe yourself personally has merit, then it will stand up to examination without having to eliminate access to what others would like to better understand,” said Brome, who urged the board to “support openness” in WCPS as opposed to censorship .
Melissa Nicholson, who lives in the South River District and has a child in WCPS, claimed that Superintendent Ballenger “lied to a School Board member about sexually explicit books being available to children in the school’s libraries,” and pointed to the book Dime being on the library shelves at WCPS secondary schools.
“I am calling on the Board to stop overlooking the lies,” said Nicholson, who said that opt-outs might prevent a child from checking out the book, but not from going into the library, getting the book, and sitting down to read it.
Dime is about the realities of teen prostitution, and its author, ER Frank, is also a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who works with adults and adolescents and specializes in trauma.
Eric Bartock, a North River District resident, said he had initially planned to read an excerpt from ER Frank’s award-winning book, Life is Funny, but thought decorum prevented it.
“It’s flat-out pornography,” Bartock said of the book, which is about 11 teenagers who live in Brooklyn, NY “You would think it was written by Larry Flint,” known for publishing pornographic material like Hustler magazine.
“This is not about the First Amendment,” he said. “It’s about protecting children from things they do not need to be exposed to.”
Resident Wendy Kurtz did read an excerpt from Life is Funny and asked what the School Board members thought about it and whether the book was the type of diversity they wanted children in the 6th grade reading about.
“I do not have kids in the school system right now but I’m gonna be a grandma someday soon and it bothers me so badly that these books are not being reviewed,” Kurtz said. These are little kids. ”
“They want to censor reading material coming from the earnest and heartfelt urge to protect children,” acknowledged Genevieve Roesch of Front Royal, who nonetheless said that children’s rights to access literature that’s vital to developing their skills beyond the classroom must be protected.
“Adults’ discomfort should never take precedence over quality education,” Roesch said, pausing to stare at Salins. “Children who read broadly about topics that open the world to them are not more likely to engage in more dangerous behaviors and do not suffer from mental health issues as a result of that reading material.”
In fact, she said, if children and teens are supported by an adult guide, research shows that when they read such material, they are more apt to be empathetic, more capable of dealing with diversity, and more likely to participate in civic activities.
WCPS Director of Finance and Clerk of the School Board Robert Ballentine read two letters on the topic to the School Board.
Proponents of book banning want their audiences gullible and scandalized. Their greatest enemy is critical thought and independence, ”wrote Kris Nelson. “They are self-righteous, outraged addicts looking for their next bit of grandstanding. Those in this movement are simply following the herd wherever it may lead. ”
The other letter from Angela Robinson, a North River District resident, called any potential book banning “the latest political stunt,” and said it was important to acknowledge during April is School Library Month what WCPS librarians “do day in and day out” for students and she encouraged board members to visit their school libraries to thank them.
Amber Morris, who has three kids in WCPS, said books like Life is Funny, which include topics such as pedophilia, gay-sex, trans sex, and rape, “desensitize children and rips them from their innocence.” She called them a “disgusting type of literature.”
Morris also pointed out that reading about topics like rape could trigger trauma in children who have been raped, for example, and agreed with other book banners that the situation “is about parental rights.”
School Board Chair Kristen Pence addressed a local newspaper article published earlier this week (by the Northern Virginia Daily) that she said stemmed from an email the School Board received from a parent on March 24 regarding books that the parent found controversial in WCPS secondary school libraries .
“Dr. Ballenger, school administrators, and librarians from our middle and high schools met to start reviewing the library process when spring break ended on March 28, ”Pence said.“ They have communicated with the board during the last 10 days and pulled together information for us to review.
“While the newspaper article does include input from Warren County High School Principal Kenneth Knesh, unfortunately, it was rushed to print and relied heavily on comments made by a member of the [Warren County] Board of Supervisors and failed to include information provided by WCPS Superintendent Dr. Ballenger, ”she said.“ We have since learned that the newspaper was having issues receiving emails so to ensure an effort that the facts are clear to the public, I’d like to ask Dr. Ballenger to share the response he sent to the reporter on April 5. ”
Ballenger then summarized the book review process, per WCPS policy: If there are questions concerning a library book or any materials, then the concerned individual can make an appointment to review all books and materials in question. The books or materials then would be pulled for the day for review by the complainant, who would have to return them to the library after the review. The books and materials, though, would remain in circulation during the person’s review.
In WCPS policy, the Process for Reconsideration of School Library and Instructional Material outlines a procedure to be followed, said Ballenger. If it is determined through this process that the book should be removed from circulation, then that action would be taken by the school, he said.
Within policies under instruction, there is form IIA-E that must be filled out to lodge a complaint and speak with a principal, he said. The complainant has the responsibility to arrange a conference with a principal, who will file his / her objections in writing.
The principal will then request a review of the challenged material by an ad hoc school review committee, which will conduct an extensive review and provide details of its findings to the principal for final consideration / action.
The superintendent also would be brought into the loop on the process, Ballenger said, and if a complainant is not in agreement with the principal’s determination, then he / she can pursue further formal consideration by the superintendent and the School Board.
“Until these processes take place, the books can stay in circulation,” he said.
In addressing what she called “the accusation” that she wants to ban books, Salins said no one has a constitutional right to show another person’s child pornography.
“If you know me, I’m a constitutionalist. I am not a book banner, ”said Salins. “You want to put all the porn and filth in public libraries, you be my guest. If you want to show it to your kids, be my guest. But you’re not going to use our limited taxpayer dollars for our school budget to show it to other people’s children. ”
She read a definition of pornography to her colleagues, WCPS staff, and the public and said the Life is Funny excerpt that was read to the board “is pornography and it’s in Warren County Public Schools,” she said.
Regarding posts she made on Facebook, Salins said she’s “allowed to voice” her opinion.
“Once it was brought to our attention, about these books being in our schools, I did talk about it because that’s where consent starts is with the knowledge that it even exists,” she said, adding that parents can not opt their children out of reading books that they do not even know are in WCPS libraries.
“Why are we not making our parents opt-in instead?” asked Salins, who encouraged parents to follow the complaint process outlined by Ballenger if they have concerns.
“Parents, it’s in your court,” she said. “If you want your children reading pornography in schools, by all means, you go right on ahead and be my guest. But if you have objections to it, fill out the form and start the ball rolling. ”
Click here to view the Warren County School Board’s April 6 meeting in its entirety.