BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education members are taking a closer look at board policy No. 3200, which addresses school library books and instructional materials and the procedure for removing access to sexually explicit books.
A group of parents and community members have regularly spoken out at board meetings in support of a stronger policy to remove books containing sexual content from school libraries, claiming the material is pornographic and inappropriate for students.
Other students and parents contend that removing books violates students’ First Amendment rights.
During Monday night’s board meeting, Superintendent Jeff James cautioned board members about removing books just because there is a strong objection to it and reminded the board of students’ First Amendment rights.
A Supreme Court decision in Island Tree School District v. Pico addressed this issue, James said. In 1975, a group of parents complained about nine books, including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Langston Hughes’ “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.” The Island Tree School District board members, who described the works as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy,” removed the books in 1976. That decision was challenged in a lawsuit brought by a group of students, one of whom was Steven Pico.
The Supreme Court ruled in the students’ favor on First Amendment grounds, holding that the right to read is implied by the First Amendment. The government — in this case a public school — cannot restrict speech because it does not agree with the content of the speech, the court ruled.
“I work at the pleasure of the board, but it’s also my job to enlighten you on what the law says,” James told board members.
The superintendent said that the district has a robust policy in place. Parents can challenge or question a book, which will then be read and discussed by a volunteer committee made up of parents, school staff and teachers.
One book review committee included a youth pastor, according to James. The schools try to find members who represent a wide range of viewpoints.
Any book that is challenged is flagged in the school’s library system, the superintendent added.
“If you want to know what your kid is reading, just ask the school. They will tell you what books your kid is checking out,” James said.
One book that was challenged, “Looking for Alaska,” has been removed, James said. Later in the meeting, he explained that this book met the “pervasively vulgar” requirements needed to have it removed.
Another book, “Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” was limited to a high school only audience after being reviewed.
The superintendent also pointed out that only small percentage of students are checking out the books considered controversial. There has been a slight uptick in student interest in these books if they become movies, he added.
Board members had questions and comments about the policy.
“Our process, it seems to me, is so cumbersome that we can’t even use it effectively and efficiently,” said Vice Chairman Mike Kubiniec. “So I think we should call for some process changes to make it streamlined and some other definitions would be helpful.”
Why does a committee have to read a 300-page book and then discuss whether it is appropriate, he asked, when the highlighted passages that describe sexually explicit behaviors could be reviewed and a decision made?
Board member Brian Sloan offered a simple suggestion.
“If there is one word that a kid can’t speak, then I don’t think it should be inside a school library,” he said.
Sloan likened the damage that library books are causing society and the community to a fire “we can’t put out.”
James advised the board that books must meet the definition of “pervasively vulgar” in order to be removed.
“Everyone who has been in a lawsuit has not followed their own policy. We have a process to review anything that’s brought up,” the superintendent said.
Board member Anita Kurn seemed surprised when the superintendent told her that all of the books that were submitted for review have been reviewed.
Dean Shatley, the school board’s attorney, mentioned that some books that have been submitted for a challenge or review may not actually be owned by the district.
♦ Read I-SS policy No. 3200 HERE.