Book Objections in Public Schools
From The Alexandria Times, January 5, 2023
Alexandria seems to have experienced fewer objections, or challenges, to books in the public schools than other jurisdictions. There have been objections to books by Toni Morrison and others in Fairfax and Spotsylvania counties. Loudoun County recently removed a graphic novel, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, from its school libraries and book objections resulted in efforts to recall School Board members. Many objections involve books on the College Board’s recommended reading list which have been used in ACPS for years, for example, Art Spieglman’s graphic novel, Maus, which was recently banned in Tennessee.
Assuming a book objection really is about the book—and not a launching pad for a political message—it is worth considering what happens if a book is challenged in ACPS.
School Board Policy KLB—Public Complaints About the Curriculum or Instructional Materials requires a city resident (not necessarily a parent) to file Form KLB-E, a “Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources,” which triggers the convening of a committee of, “…the principal, the library media specialist, the classroom teacher (if involved), a parent and/or student, and the person making the complaint.” The committee must, “a. read, view or listen to the challenged material; b. read several reviews, if available; c. check standard selection aids; d. talk with persons who may be knowledgeable about the material in question and similar material; e. discuss the material…”
After the committee makes a recommendation to retain or withdraw the book, the complainant “…may appeal the decision, in turn, to the Superintendent or designee and then, to the School Board.” It is easy to imagine weeks and months passing in the review/appeal process.
The good news (especially for those who do not enjoy filing Form KLB-E, attending the committee meetings required by Policy KLB, and appealing adverse determinations) is that many teachers are flexible about book choices. One Alexandria City High School (ACHS) teacher said that after understanding a content objection they would “find something of equal literary merit that can be used for the skills we are building” and “make sure that the student still has my attention” during classroom activities.
Another ACHS teacher said that it was important to “always explain the why of a book choice” and that often book selections “represent populations not heard from” as in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir, Fun Home. This teacher allows students to skip parts of a book that may be disturbing.
There is a difference between objections to books in school libraries and books that are assigned as course readings. In the latter, students are a captive audience. Challenges to books in school libraries present different concerns. Many of these objections reflect national, not local, issues and originate from, or are accelerated by, social media. Objections are sometimes made by the same people in multiple cities indicating that the true purpose of the book objection is advocacy on broader political issues—the book objection is a proxy for another agenda.
School libraries have different curatorial duties than book stores or public libraries. A student who checks out (or even opens) a book in a school library makes an independent choice. A parent’s book objection may mean that the student failed to listen to, or willfully disregarded, the parent’s reading guidelines or that the guidelines were not communicated to the student. Thus, what originates as a family problem—how to regulate children’s reading choices—becomes the school’s problem.
A calm conversation involving the person objecting to the book and the school’s librarian, teacher, or school administrator is a more productive approach than a fiery speech at a School Board meeting.
Platform/attention seekers, whether in social media or School Board meetings, seem to use book objections to make high wattage political arguments about, for example, overly interventionist government or the evils of an opposing political party. Those arguments may reflect sincerely held beliefs, but the book objection is revealed as a pretext.
There are other ways to pursue conscience-driven book objections that are both practical and pragmatic. The best approach would be a reasoned conversation with a teacher or administrator.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/
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