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Forsyth County Education Coalition urges school leaders to keep current book policy in place

A group of parents and community members recently formed the Forsyth Coalition for Education, a nonpartisan organization working to “safeguard the integrity of education” in the county.

The founders of the coalition said it began to address concerns they had about the current debate surrounding the removal of books from media centers in Forsyth County Schools.

Pat Wall, one of the coalition’s board members and a former librarian, said she first heard about  the national debate in Forsyth County several months ago when the district announced they had removed eight books from all of its school media centers.

She took to social media to talk with others in the community and found many shared her concerns that removing the books could lead to a lack of diverse offerings in K-12 schools.

“Those kids have a right to read books that represent them in some ways,” Wall said. “The right book in the right hand at the right time can be very affirming and very healing.”

With the group of community members, Wall and her friends worked to create the Forsyth Coalition for Education to spread awareness of concerns in the community and push for the Forsyth County Board of Education to keep the current book challenge policies in place.

District leaders announced during the board’s March work session that they are planning for changes to school media centers and board policy, which will take effect for the 2022-23 school year beginning in August.

Wall, along with coalition leaders Quinn Baker, Latresha Jackson and Becky Woomer, recently sent an open letter to the board asking that the changes not be made, saying that the district’s current written policy for challenged books “is a good one.”

“If followed diligently and transparently, it maintains the educational value of our schools, prioritizes children’s learning and protects their rights,” the letter states.

Under the current policy, students, parents and community members are able to formally challenge a book by contacting their school administration and submitting a book challenge form. This starts a review process conducted by the school’s Local Media Committee.

The Local Media Committee then has 30 days to read the full book, reviewing it and looking at certain criteria such as if it supports curriculum standards, is appropriate for the age or grade level of students, meets the needs of the school’s student population, provides a global perspective and promotes diversity, and more.

If the Local Media Committee decides to remove the book, it is removed only from that individual school. If the committee decides to keep the book, the challenger then has the opportunity to challenge the book with the District Media Committee then the BOE.

Coalition leaders stated in the letter, however, that FCS deviated from this current policy when they decided to remove the eight books in January. The books were not reviewed through either a local or district committee, and they were taken out of all schools in the district.

“All of these deviations from policy have degraded the process that has worked so well for Forsyth County in the past,” the letter states.

The coalition asked that the board bring back the books in question to allow them to be reviewed through the current book challenge process.

In a follow-up statement to the coalition, the BOE noted that Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden had asked district staff at the time to review 15 books and administratively remove any containing “pervasively sexually explicit” content. Staff members decided on the removal of the eight books through this process.

The decision was made based on complaints about explicit content in the books sent directly to Bearden and the BOE, and there was no formal book challenge started on at the individual school level.

Because of this, the BOE told the coalition in their statement that “the policy you referenced earlier in your letter did not apply.”

The coalition also began a petition asking that the board stick to the current policy instead of moving forward with the changes going into effect in August. Posted to the group’s website, the petition has more than 180 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Angie Darnell said she joined the coalition because she had concerns about the impact the debate would have on schools in the county.

Darnell said she has been volunteering in classrooms in Forsyth County Schools for nearly 21 years including as a member of parent teacher organizations. She said she has never felt held back from being involved as a parent in her children’s schools and believes FCS is an amazing school system.

She said some of the “talking points” community members have shared at recent board meetings during public participation simply don’t fit what she knows about the school system.

Darnell said she and the other members of the coalition believe much of the upset around the issue is either dramatized or constructed for political gain.

“It’s like it is sensationalized to the degree that there is something else going on, and I truly believe it is this national narrative to push for-profit schools,” Darnell said. “Forsyth County does not need that.”

There has been a national conversation, especially in the last several months, amongst conservative groups around legislation allowing for school choice, which suggests that public education funding should follow students to schools or services that best fit their needs whether that be homeschool, private schools or other options.

Wall agreed, saying organizations like Truth in Education have pointed to explicit content in school media centers as a reason for parents to pull their kids from public schools.

“We are dealing with political implications of all of this, really,” Darnell said. “That’s not to say between liberals and conservatives, it’s just taking a stand on something that could be used [as a political platform] and not to the value of the student or rectifying the problem.”

Darnell said she and others in the coalition are asking the community to slow down and think about the implications of the book debate and the impact sudden changes to policy could have on the school system.

Overall, Darnell and Wall say the dismay in the community is hurting the district and its students more than the actual books in question.

Wall pointed to recent board meetings, which have turned heated with yelling and name-calling from speakers and the crowd. Some in the community have also taken to social media to specifically target books containing LGBT characters or themes.

Darnell said some LGBT students and families have begun to feel isolated “in a community that [they do not feel] welcomes them.”

“This is not civil discourse, and it’s hard to take,” Wall said.

Group members emphasized that the Forsyth Education Coalition is a nonpartisan organization looking to ensure current policies stay in place in the district to help make the best decision for schools and students. The group is made up of parents, business owners, teachers, librarians and students, and Darnell said some in the coalition are also politically conservative.

Together, they hope they can create a united front in the community and show their support to FCS.