Leaders of Forsyth County Schools said they are preparing to change the district’s formal book challenge process and other media center policies to help address current community concerns about books that contain “sexually explicit” material.
Mike Evans, chief technology and information officer and Lee Anne Rice, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, presented some of the district-wide changes they are considering during the Forsyth County Board of Education work session on Tuesday, March 8.
Evans pointed out that the district began receiving complaints from the community about books they said contained explicit material several months ago. This led the district to make some initial changes, including the quick decision to remove eight books from all the school media centers.
This decision sparked a heated local debate as some in the community called on the board to remove more books while others refuted the idea of removing books at all, especially as some community members began to specifically target books containing LGBTQ characters or themes.
While continuing to discuss further changes, Evans emphasized that district leaders have paid close consideration to both sides of the debate.
Evans and Rice recently met with the District Media Committee to discuss what can be done to increase parental involvement in a students’ book selections and expedite the process by which books that potentially contain sexually explicit material are challenged and removed.
District-level decision making
One of the most drastic changes to media center policies discussed at Tuesday’s work session is the decision to create District Media Subcommittees to help speed up the process of vetting which books should be removed from school media centers.
The current process is for book challenges to be reviewed on an individual school level. Once a community member contacts a school principal to challenge a book, the school’s Local Media Committee has a chance to read and review the material. Prior to this year, they were given 45 days for the process. It has since been reduced to 30 days.
After this review, the committee votes on whether they believe the book should be removed from the school’s media center, and the decision only applies to the individual school.
If the original challenger is not satisfied with the Local Media Committee’s decision, they can formally challenge the book through the District Media Committee, according to board policy.
Evans said he and his team are planning for a new process specifically for book challenges regarding sexually explicit content that would skip the review on the local school level, sending the challenge directly to the district.
To do this, they plan to create several District Media Subcommittees so they can take part in several book challenge reviews at once. Once the subcommittees make a decision based on their review, they would send a recommendation to the larger District Media Committee for a final vote.
Evans said the decision would also apply to the entire district, meaning if the committee voted to remove the book, it would be removed from all media centers.
He emphasized that the new process would only apply to books being challenged for explicit content. All other challenges would go through the process beginning at the local school level.
Before the beginning of the nationwide debate around media center books, Evans said the district only received around one or two book challenges per year districtwide.
Books used in the classroom
Rice said the district is also looking at ways to help speed up the book challenge process by using work the teaching and learning department has already done to review certain books.
She explained that the department has a “thorough vetting process” for curriculum and any supplemental materials used in classrooms, including novels teachers select to read in their classes.
“A teacher can say, ‘I’d really like to read [this book] in my seventh-grade ELA class,’” Rice said. “And so a committee reads the book, we look at it and look at the standards, we look at the literary value. We analyze it for a variety of things.”
Rice said they are looking at sharing this work with the District Media Committee so the same books aren’t being reviewed twice.
Some recent concerns from the community have been aimed at books used in Advanced Placement courses. These are college-level courses, and “some of the texts do have more mature content,” according to Rice.
“Those are courses that are self-selected,” Rice said. “Students and parents understand that is a level that is higher than a high school level that could have those topics. But we also want to be certain that when we’re looking at texts, especially any that are being challenged, we are looking at it from a holistic view and instructional view in addition to the content itself.”
For example, she said a book that is appropriate for students in a self-selected AP course may not be appropriate for the school media center where any student can check it out.
Right now, she said results from book challenges apply to both classrooms and media centers, but teachers have expressed concerns that not having these books in class could put students at a disadvantage academically.
Rice said many of these books often come up on AP exams, which are administered by The College Board.
One example of a book that is often referenced on these exams is “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison — one of the eight books the district removed from all of its schools in January.
While the book was not approved for supplementary classroom materials before, Rice said many teachers put it on a list of additional books for students to read outside of class. The recommendation to students has since been removed from course materials.
Looking at these concerns, Rice said the district is considering changes to policies and procedures that could allow for books challenged and removed in the media centers to still be allowed for certain classes.
BOE members said at the work session Tuesday that some books in the media center collection have “snuck through the cracks,” with content school and district staff did not catch.
Vice Chairwoman Kristin Morrissey said, however, that the concerns they have received from the community account for 10-15 of the more than 540,000 books offered at FCS.
“We need to give credit to our media center specialists that they are doing a really good job, and we appreciate all the work they’ve done for years and years building a good collection,” Morrissey said.
But to ensure books containing explicit material do not fall through those cracks, Evans said they are looking at requiring schools to complete an annual comprehensive review of their media center books.
Through the review, he said staff would look at outdated books or low circulation numbers to determine if a book needs to be removed from the collection.
Evans said many of the books the community have shown concerns about recently have been on media center shelves for more than 10 years while only being checked out from the media center two to three times.
He and the members of the District Media Committee are also considering requiring any new media center book purchases to be vetted through alternative reviews such as Common Sense Media, a site where parents and kids rate media including movies and books, and Amazon.
Previously, media center staff vetted books through “professional reviews” that identify the instructional merit of books.
“When we looked at the professional reviews of some of the books that were brought forth, nowhere in there did it say anything about some of the content that was in there,” Evans said. “But when you looked at Common Sense Media and when you looked at Amazon reviews, that’s when you get a true reflection and more diverse reflection of the type of content.”
Focusing on families
Aside from these district-level changes, Forsyth County Schools is also asking parents to become more involved in what their child is reading. District leaders said they can do this by having a conversation with the child, creating reading lists that best fit their family values and even visiting the school media center.
Rice said they are currently working on plans to promote school media centers as a place for all families to visit.
She suggested that media center staff will work in the future to build further relationships with parents and families and host more events in the media centers like literacy nights, community book clubs and Parent Coffee Talks where they can discuss other upcoming events and books.
Rice said they also plan to create training for media center specialists to learn more about how to engage and connect with the community.
Changes to Destiny
Evans said they have contacted Follett, the company that owns Destiny, the software FCS uses to catalog media center offerings, to find a way for parents to have more involvement in what their kids are reading at school.
When contacted, the company had already begun working on solutions to complaints they have seen nationwide from parents.
One of the solutions being considered is an automatic email notification for parents, which would be sent to them anytime a student checks a book out at school. Evans said the email might include the title of the book, a short description or even tags that are placed on the book in Destiny to distinguish its genre.
From this notification, parents can choose to have a conversation with their children about the books they are checking out from school.
Another solution they are looking at is restricting students’ access to certain books based on parents’ prior requests. For example, a parent could request that a student not be able to check out a book tagged as LGBTQ in Destiny.
Evans said the upcoming change to the software “comes with some challenges.”
In Forsyth County, media center specialists engage more with the students and teach lessons in the libraries. When they are away from the check-out desk, they switch the computer to a kiosk mode that allows students to check out the book themselves.
Media center staff can’t always monitor what students are checking out, so with this process, students could bypass those parental restrictions.
“Those are just some things we’ll have to look at down the road,” Evans said.
Evans said Follett gave no timeline on when the changes to the software would be complete, but he and other district leaders are hoping to see them soon.
Evans and Rice told the board that when the changes from Follett are ready to implement, they will be able to make those available to parents immediately.
In the meantime, Evans said they will continue to have meetings with the District Media Committee throughout the next few months to finetune the changes explained at the work session, which they plan to implement at the start of the 2022-23 school year.
He and Rice explained they want to take time on district changes and make sure they don’t get ahead of any new state legislation dealing with K-12 media centers that could emerge in the next month, and they want to be sure any changes are legally sound and the right fit for FCS.
“We have to be really sensitive to the balance between the explicit content or book removal versus the censorship,” Evans said. “That’s something that, as a district and committee, we have to be aware of.”
‘Don’t wait for us’
Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden said the district unfortunately cannot “wave a magic wand” and set these new procedures in place immediately. They need time to build and implement detailed procedures for the school system, but in the meantime, he suggested that those with concerns have a conversation with their children.
“I know this sounds very simplistic in nature, but I would just encourage any parent who’s concerned about a book to prohibit their child from reading it,” Bearden said. “I mean, there is nothing stopping a parent from doing that right now …. As a parent, if I’m concerned about what my child is reading, I’m not going to allow them to read it.
“I just strongly encourage parents who are very concerned about this — don’t wait for us,” Bearden continued. “Please be having those conversations right now because you can control this as a family yourself.”
Morrissey said the current book challenge process is also still available for parents with concerns about a specific book. Those looking to begin a book challenge should contact the school principal where the book is shelved.