Following last week’s welcome decision by the school board in Accomack County, Virginia to restore The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird to school libraries and classrooms after they were challenged by a parent, CBLDF and its partners in the Kids’ Right to Read Project followed up with a letter urging that the district reform its policy to ensure that any future challenged books will remain in circulation while under review.
The white mother of a biracial student in the district brought up her complaints about the books at a school board meeting on November 15, where she acknowledged that both are American classics but claimed that “at some point I feel the children will not or do not truly get the classic part, the literature part [because] there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.” From news reports it is unclear whether her complaint was only presented verbally, or also on the Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources form as required by district policy. In any case, Superintendent Chris Holland said even that parent never asked for the books to be banned, but only for the district to “have a more diverse selection in its libraries.”
That nuance was subsumed when the district faithfully followed its existing challenge policy, which says that “materials cited in the complaint will be temporarily suspended for use pending determination by the [review] committee.” While this may have seemed logical to those who first drafted the policy which was passed in 1994 and last updated in 2014, Accomack County Public Schools quickly learned why free speech advocacy groups recommend the opposite course of leaving challenged items in circulation while they’re under review. The spectacle of a school district pulling Mark Twain and Harper Lee from its shelves, even if they were likely to be restored later, grabbed national headlines which in turn led to a predictable backlash from visitors to the district’s Facebook page and even its Google reviews.
Gratifyingly, the school board did recognize the shortcomings of the current challenge policy and formed a committee to consider overhauling it last week at the same meeting where the books were restored to circulation. The letter from KRRP argues, however, that the proposed change of allowing “the superintendent discretion to keep challenged books on library shelves while they are reviewed” does not go far enough:
It is important to implement procedures that create a presumption in favor of retention of challenged materials to preclude the possibility that access to educationally valuable materials will be restricted, even temporarily. Parents who do not want their child to read a given book always have the option to restrict their own child’s access or to seek an alternative assignment. The default protection of challenged books and the rights of other parents will safeguard intellectual freedom and students’ right to read challenging and thought-provoking works of literature.
We are glad to see the Accomack County School Board making a good faith effort to correct a flawed challenge policy, and we hope to work with them to make the new policy the best that it can be! Check out the full letter below.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.