2016-09-21 / Front Page

School system reaches verdict on summer reading list controversy

By Rich Griset

After months of debate, the summer reading list controversy has seemingly ended where it began: In the future, the school system may release a list that includes books recommended by other organizations.

Since June, parents, librarians, national organizations and state Sen. Amanda Chase have all weighed in on how books should be chosen for inclusion on Chesterfield County Public Schools’ summer reading list. That controversy has possibly come to a close, with Superintendent James Lane and School Board attorney Wendell Roberts issuing a memo addressed to the School Board earlier this month.

The memo was informed by the findings of a committee that was tasked with reviewing three book titles that some parents found offensive: Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park,” Coe Booth’s “Tyrell” and Walter Dean Myers’ “Dope Sick.”

In the memo, Lane explained that he agreed with the findings of the committee, which reviewed all three controversial books and recommended that the titles remain in CCPS libraries. It also stated that the school system’s chief academic officer would review the process for how books were chosen for inclusion in libraries in the future.

Regarding the future of summer reading lists, the memo stated, “The school division will not recommend individual books for reading, but will share lists of nationally recognized/award-winning books. Individual schools may continue to require summer reading assignments involving specific books, but must have an alternative assignment available for students who express a concern.” This is similar to the reissued reading lists the school system put out in the spring, with the names of lists from Scholastic and Read Kiddo Read and a couple of books listed as examples. The inclusion of books on this list is not to be considered an endorsement by the school system, school officials said, only a representation of a few books endorsed by other organizations.

In an email after the memo was issued, school system spokesman Tim Bullis explained that next year’s reading lists may look like this year’s final lists, though the lists will not include endorsement of specific book titles. Reached by phone last week, School Board chair and Clover Hill District representative Dianne Smith said the entire board was in agreement with Lane’s memo.

The controversy started when a group of parents questioned the appropriateness of books placed on the summer reading lists for middle and high school students, with one parent calling them “pornographic” and filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.” The school system reissued the lists, including the explanation that the school system “does not endorse any specific titles on these lists. Not all parents will consider all of the books on these sites to be appropriate, so parents are encouraged to visit these sites for reviews to determine which books are appropriate.” Parents objected to the lists from other organizations, as they included some of the books they found offensive.

The school system also announced it would create a committee, which included three parents, to read and review “Eleanor and Park,” “Tyrell” and “Dope Sick.” The American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia penned letters of concern about the controversy, urging the restoration of the original reading lists.

State Sen. Amanda Chase also jumped into the fray. Chase, who has children in the Chesterfield school system, said that librarians who continued to recommend books that were inconsistent with the school system’s core values should be “dismissed” after a warning. She also endorsed warnings that notified parents of a book’s content.

Christine Eason, one of the parents who spoke against the summer reading lists at the School Board’s June 16 meeting, said she appreciates the efforts of the school system to review the books, but disagreed with the review committee’s decision.

“Parents’ concerns and grievance was not with the books being available in the library, our concern was that librarians created a suggested summer reading list for potentially 10-year-olds that had sexually explicit material, drug language, and excessive profanity,” Eason said via email. “I feel the Superintendent’s decision to NOT create a suggested summer reading list for next year is a cop out.

“If Chesterfield County Schools are going to continue to use the same criteria to determine age appropriateness as they did when they chose Tyrell for 10 to 14-year-olds, I advise all parents to be hypervigilant about screening the content of your children’s reading material,” she continued. “Do not assume it [portrays] African-Americans in a positive light. Be prepared for your child to be exposed to potential date rape scenarios that are portrayed in a way that normalizes inappropriate boundaries, premeditated coercive sexual encounters, and lap dances for money between teens and adults. Perhaps if concerned parents like myself had been included in on the discussion with the review committee we would have a better understanding of their decision. As a parent, and as a clinical social worker, I am shocked.”

Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs for the National Coalition Against Censorship, issued a statement in response to the Lane memo. In August, the NCAC penned a letter addressed to Lane, saying removing books from the summer reading lists infringed on student rights.

“Offering an outside list rather than one created by teachers and librarians in a particular school is done more with an eye towards protecting the school against complaints than with consideration for the interests of students,” Mintcheva said. “It is educators in a particular school that know the student population served by that school best and are best equipped to make recommendations.”

After the memo was released, Chase released a statement reading that parents should have the final say in what their children read and that this had opened dialogue between parents and the school system about what was appropriate. In a phone interview, she added that she would still like notifications sent to parents ahead of time for questionable material to give a “polite heads up, ‘Hey, you might want to look over this book.’”

“We need to involve the parents in that process, where it’s reasonable,” Chase said. “No parents want to be surprised that their kids were reading something that was morally objectionable.”

While she agrees with the school system’s plan to look at the process of how books are chosen for school libraries, Chase warns that parents may ultimately turn to private school or homeschooling their kids if they feel they aren’t being listened to.

“Public schools need to meet the needs of all parents, or parents are going to turn to alternative methods,” Chase said. “The public schools need to get it right because, at the end of the day, parents are going to do what’s best for their kids.”

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