2016-08-24 / Featured / Front Page

School Board: Waiting for final report in book debate

Library association pens letter, Sen. Chase takes to the airwaves
By Rich Griset

After a couple months of silence on the school system’s summer reading list controversy, the School Board has finally weighed in.

The comment comes after last week’s article, “As book controversy swirls, School Board remains mum,” addressed how the School Board had remained silent on the dispute and had not responded to emails and calls seeking comment. The books removed from the original summer reading lists are currently being reviewed by a committee that includes three parents.

School Board chair and Clover Hill District representative Dianne Smith wrote the following in an email: “In last week’s edition, the Chesterfield Observer reported that the School Board was mum on the topic. While that may be the reporter or paper’s belief, the School Board has purposefully chosen to let the committee complete its work before offering any opinion. To comment on or interfere with the committee’s work might yield the perception of trying to interfere with the process or of trying to influence the outcome.

“The board looks forward to receiving a report from the Superintendent at the end of the process,” Smith continued. “At that time, the School Board will share the report with the community.”

The statement also reads that the School Board expects to “continue partnering with parents, who are critical team members in our efforts to prepare students for success. The school division and School Board have long encouraged parents to be active participants in their child’s education and will continue to do so.”

Other recent developments in the controversy include the American Library Association penning an open letter to the School Board about the dispute and state Sen. Amanda Chase addressing the controversy on her radio show on AM 820.

The state senator spoke at length about summer reading lists on her show “Cut to the Chase with Amanda Chase” last week, saying “concerned parents … feel there is a disconnect between the stated mission of teaching respect for others and the reading list, which are passively or actively endorsing titles which may condone or normalize violence or abusive behavior.”

Chase spoke of her support for a General Assembly bill this past session that would have required public schools to notify parents before using sexually explicit books in school. The bill, sponsored by Del. R. Steven Landis (R-Weyers Cave), passed both houses before being vetoed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“This would have been a commonsense, individualized approach to solving disagreements over what content is age-appropriate,” Chase said.

Chase also took issue with coverage in the Chesterfield Observer, saying the way the controversy had been written about was intended to “sell newspapers,” and “I know in one of the articles, it says ‘Sen. Chase dismisses the librarians.’ Well, guess what? That’s not my job. I cannot do that, and I would not do that. I fully believe in leaving those decisions at the local level.”

The Observer article, titled “Sen. Chase: Librarians should be ‘dismissed’” did not infer that Chase had the ability to fire librarians. Chase said that, after receiving a warning, librarians who recommended offensive books that did not line up with the school system’s core values should be dismissed.

The hour-long radio show featured Christine Eason and former Matoaca School Board representative Omarh Rajah as guests. Eason, a parent with children at CCPS middle and high schools, spoke of how the books would adversely affect youth populations that have suffered trauma from abuse and neglect. Eason is a social worker currently working in the therapeutic foster care system.

Chase mentioned that some of the reading lists’ defenders have compared the readings to Shakespeare or “The Diary of Anne Frank” and asked Eason why these books differed.

“It’s comical. There’s no comparison whatsoever,” Eason replied. “The reason that this is so different is [that] the poetic, literary genius of a Shakespeare [is being] compared to graphic, explicit sexual detail that is written for visual stimulation. All the senses are aroused.”

The two took particular issue with Coe Booth’s “Tyrell,” which features a sex scene that they said didn’t include proper consent between a man and a woman.

“These professionals, these librarians are suggesting [this] content to 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds that are setting them up for a date rape culture,” Eason said. “Do they realize that this content is creating a mindset internalizing into these young teenagers the scenario of date rape?”

Chase was also appalled that the sex acts depicted in “Tyrell” were considered appropriate for younger readers.

“If students actually performed these acts in our public schools, they would be expelled,” Chase said.

Eason added, “If they typed this stuff on their Chromebooks, they’d be expelled. If they read out loud the content of these books, they’d be expelled.”

Chase voiced her support for the School Board.

“I really do respect the current School Board for taking their time and making a thoughtful response, taking a look at all the different issues that are at play here,” Chase said.

Rajah – who is African-American – said he agreed with Chase that the use of the N-word in the books was offensive. He compared the summer reading list controversy to a controversy during his tenure on School Board. In 2011, the board approved a textbook for an elective course on the Bible’s impact on history.

“I was attacked on the other side of the aisle, with a lot of parents stating that the Bible is to be taught by families,” Rajah said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s not always the case because kids need to be educated about all things, and most importantly about God,’ and they said, ‘Well, that should be the minister.’ And I said, ‘Some kids don’t go to church.’”

“We have to plant that seed that there are other options out there other than what you see on the bookshelf,” he said.

In its letter to the School Board, the ALA urged the restoration of the original summer reading lists, which featured books that some parents found objectionable. After outcry from parents, the school system created new lists for middle and high school students.

Julie Todaro, president of the ALA, said that the letter was issued with the intent of supporting librarians and the review process that Chesterfield is undertaking (the full letter can be read on page 9).

“We are very interested in assisting people in clarifying what school librarians do and the value that they bring to schools,” Todaro said. “We were also concerned that some of the language called for the librarians’ firing because they had suggested a title. They weren’t requiring it, they weren’t forcing people to read it; they weren’t doing anything other than their job.”

Referencing “Eleanor and Park” – one of the books removed from the original list – Todaro said the book “exemplifies a wonderful parenting approach. The boy’s parents are just considered exceptional models for parents.” In regards to Walter Dean Myers’ “Dope Sick,” Todaro says the “book is a startling look at the importance of kids making the right choices and illustrating for them [that] they don’t get a do-over for their more serious choices.”

“Tyrell,” “Eleanor and Park” and “Dope Sick” are being reviewed by a panel that includes three parents from the County Council of PTAs, one principal, two teachers and one librarian. School system spokesman Tim Bullis stated in an email that no date had been set for the committee to submit its findings to the School Board, but they hope to have a recommendation available in September.

“They’re doing the right thing, and they’ve got a committee that’s representative [of the district],” Todaro said. “You all have a good process in place, a committee that is broadly membered so there is representation from a variety of people.”

In response to the ALA’s letter, Sen. Chase sent via email: “I’m really trying to understand how those who say they support and uphold the First Amendment are so quick to dismiss the First Amendment of those parents and students who don’t share their particular viewpoint of ‘anything goes’ and express no concern for the age appropriateness of content regarding our children.

“We need to enable and empower the reader to make an informed and educated decision regarding their reading. We’re not legislating book banning. That’s what the coalitions from New York want you to think. Don’t believe it.”

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