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Forsyth County Board of Education decides not to limit public participation following criticism from community
Community continues school media center book debate at meetings
Board of Education
The Forsyth County Board of Education office. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

The Forsyth County Board of Education decided not to limit public participation at its regular board meetings, voting instead to move executive sessions and allow staff the opportunity to leave earlier.

Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden recommended the change at the BOE’s regular meeting on Tuesday, April 19. Passed unanimously, the change will move the executive sessions to 5 p.m., one hour ahead of the normal meeting time.

The change would allow FCS staff to leave after the business portion of the meeting instead of having to stay through the public participation portion, which can now last up to 90 minutes or more as dozens of community members come to speak to the board about school media center books they say contain “sexually explicit” material.

Bearden said there will be no change for members of the public wanting to attend or speak at board meetings. The business portion of the meeting will still take place beginning at 6 p.m., but public participation will be the last item on the agenda. This change will take effect beginning with its next regular meeting in May.

During the last work session on Tuesday, April 12, the board originally discussed putting possible limitations on public participation at meetings, suggesting a variety of ideas they said could allow others in the community to feel more comfortable coming to board meetings or allow students and staff to come back to meetings for recognitions and presentations.

This discussion led to immediate criticism from groups in the community and online who have attended or spoken at board meetings in recent months to ask for the removal of certain books from school media centers.

The board's current process allows an unlimited number of participants with three minutes each to speak.

“I will say our public participation policy, in consultation with our attorney, is probably the least restrictive public participation policy in metro Atlanta, but the board felt strongly that they wanted to continue to give our community unlimited access to the board and to speak for the three minutes,” Bearden said.

Despite the board deciding not to limit participation, some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting criticized the board for considering a change.

Clint Fishback, a parent in the county, pointed out that part of Bearden’s reasoning for suggesting a change to public participation is because the board continues to hear from the same speakers on the same topics each month.

“Instead of taking the logical approach of examining why so many people are coming every month to speak, why they’re speaking on the same topics or why it’s repeating month after month, you took the approach of [asking] should we limit public speaking,” Fishback told the board.

Instead of trying to address community members’ concerns, he believes the board is trying to silence some stakeholders.

“I am delighted that you decided against limiting input at least for now, but the fact that it was even an option to explore sends shivers down my back and it should every parent, grandparent, guardian, student and taxpayer in this county,” Fishback said.

Another parent, Mendy Moore, said the same community members have continued to show up at board meetings to speak on the same topics mostly because she and others feel largely ignored by the board.

She said she has sent emails to board members that have never received a reply, and she said many parents were not invited to give feedback in focus groups on the district’s 2022-27 strategic plan. Online surveys were, however, available for all stakeholders to provide feedback.

“Sadly, being ignored is the complaint I’ve heard by a lot of parents,” Moore said. “So when parents voiced their frustration at last month’s meeting, it was not their first step. They have been working the process and getting nowhere.”

She said she and other community members have asked the board repeatedly to hold a town hall to allow an open conversation where stakeholders could ask questions and receive direct answers and feedback from board members.

At regular meetings, board members cannot respond to comments during public participation.

“Aside from three BOE members who have made themselves available a handful of times in small, private settings, there has been no formal opportunity for parents to have a conversation with the board,” Moore said.

Brooke Damron, another speaker at Tuesday’s meeting, agreed with Moore, saying she and other community members will continue to speak at BOE meetings about explicit content in media center books until the board addresses their concerns.

“Do your job and protect our kids so we can move on,” Damron said.

Nearly 20 others also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, with many continuing to fight against the removal of books from the school’s media centers and against censorship within the district.

Several speakers described specific books that have been challenged or already removed from the district, explaining why context is important when reviewing books and deciding on possible removal from a library or media center.

Pat Wall, a returning speaker, pointed to the book, “Nineteen Minutes,” by Jodi Picoult as an example. This was one of eight books that FCS decided to remove from all of its schools’ media centers earlier this year after a review found it contained “sexually explicit” material.

The book follows a group of high school students in the events leading up to and following a school shooting. It deals heavily in topics such as bullying and teen peer pressure, and Wall said the book contains a strong message.

Overall, she said there is only one small section of the book that could be considered sexually explicit — a scene between two 17-year-old students who she said are described as having been in a year-long relationship.

“Content in context,” Wall said. “That’s critical in reviewing a book. Some parents have forgotten that important part just as they have ignored the fact that students don’t read the books they choose out loud to an audience. Most students know better, and they also know a paragraph or two does not define the literary merit of a book.”

Becky Woomer, a Forsyth County parent, agreed with this, pointing to another book that was removed from FCS’ schools this year, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. She brought her daughter’s annotated copy of the book to show the board, which she said she read in one of her classes at South Forsyth High School.

The story follows an African American girl living in Ohio after the Great Depression who wishes for her eyes to turn blue so she can be regarded as “beautiful.” The book has been considered controversial in the U.S. for many years as it centers around issues involving race and sexual assault.

Woomer said the “main horror” in the book is a point in which the main character is assaulted by her father.

“It’s that passage that has been called sexually explicit despite not being sexual and not particularly explicit,” Woomer said. “There is nothing easy or comfortable about this scene, but it is not pornography. And the legacy of racism and violence it confronts us with is not comfortable either, but great literature isn’t supposed to just make us happy.”

Overall, she and other speakers emphasized that each family in the county is different and may have different feelings toward their children reading specific books, especially ones that deal with tough subjects.

Another parent, Mitzi McAdam, said that instead of removing books from school media centers, parents should simply get more involved in what their children are reading. On an individual basis, she said parents have the right to restrict what their own children are reading or watching.

But she and other parents agreed that restricting book access for all students should be considered censorship and a violation of students’ right to read.

“I call on the members of this board to affirm that the freedom to read for my child and for all students will be protected,” Woomer said.

For more information on FCS’ media center practices, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.

To watch Tuesday’s full meeting, visit the district’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/forsythcountyschools.