Book banning debate reignites in Virginia

May 30, 2023 – Anna Bryson, Sean Jones – Richmond Times

Steve Ikenberry represents the Cold Harbor District on the Hanover County School Board. “We’re not banning books. We’re trying to clean things up a little bit,” Ikenberry said during the board’s May 9 meeting. 

A few dozen people sat on the lawn outside the Hanover County Board of Supervisors chambers ahead of its meeting Wednesday for a “read-in” to read and discuss books that are at risk of being removed from school libraries.

The book banning debate in Virginia is reigniting, with book challenges from parents in Richmond-area school divisions and a Hanover School Board member who wants to remove 17 books from school libraries.

“We’re not banning books. We’re trying to clean things up a little bit,” Cold Harbor District representative Steve Ikenberry said during a May 9 School Board meeting. He named 17 books he said should not be available in schools.

About 29% of the book titles Ikenberry listed are about LGBTQ issues or center queer characters. An April report from PEN America, a national organization dedicated to protecting freedom of expression, shows that 26% of unique titles banned during the first half of the 2022-23 school year nationwide have LGBTQ characters or themes.

“Maybe not all of you will find these offensive. But I think you will find the majority of Hanover County citizens will find it offensive because it is,” said Hanover School Board Chairman John Axselle III. “It’s not about politics. It’s not about conservative versus liberal. It’s none of that. We’re not saying that.”

The books are more vivid than Playboy, he said.

The list includes “This Book is Gay,” Juno Dawson’s young adult nonfiction book about sexuality and gender, and George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a series of personal essays about growing up Black and queer.

The books “have zero educational value or suitability, zero, none,” Ikenberry said at the meeting. “They are graphic. Some of them are graphic with pictures, and how to do things that should be only instructed by, in my opinion … at home.”

Virginia Beach ‘sexually explicit content’ policy proposal for school libraries could ‘take out lots of books’

The discussion about potentially removing books comes as the Hanover School Board considers a policy change in how it assesses the suitability of books in its school libraries.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which was the No. 2 most banned book last year according to the American Library Association, contains sexually graphic passages including language about receiving oral sex. “This Book is Gay,” which was the No. 10 most banned book last year according to the ALA, contains cartoon diagrams of bodies and provides information about how various sex acts are performed.

Murphy’s campaign made its way to the Virginia General Assembly, which passed two versions of a bill in 2016 and 2017 that would have given parents the right to opt their children out of books containing sexually explicit material.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, vetoed both bills. McAuliffe lost the 2021 election for governor to Youngkin.

Youngkin is now working to hold GOP control of the House of Delegates and flip control of the state Senate in the November General Assembly elections.

He released two ads Wednesday focused on his “parents matter” movement. One ad highlighted Virginia Democrats who have opposed the idea of giving parents a greater say in their children’s education. One ad showed McAuliffe at a 2021 debate saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — a quote that became a turning point in the gubernatorial race.

 14 books to be removed from Spotsylvania County school libraries

School libraries were a hot topic during this year’s General Assembly session with several related bills introduced.

A bill that would have let parents bar their own children from access to school library books with graphic sexual content passed the Republican-controlled House, but died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Legislation that would have required the state Department of Education to create model policies for how school divisions should regulate the selection and removal of books also died in the Senate.

The state education department has no oversight of school library issues, and each local School Board sets its policies.

Virginia State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said, “These are local decisions that should be made based on family and community standards and engagement.”

Other books on Ikenberry’s list include “Looking for Alaska,” a bestselling young adult novel by John Green, and Patricia McCormick’s “Sold,” a story about a girl from Nepal who is sold into sex slavery in India.

None of Ikenberry’s colleagues at the meeting disagreed with his statements about the 17 books.

In Henrico County, where parents have challenged three books since late 2021, the School Board voted this month to keep copies of Soman Chainani’s fantasy novel “The School for Good and Evil” in middle and high school libraries.

The Shady Grove Elementary School parent who challenged the book wrote in his or her request that the book has no redeeming qualities and promotes the normalization of violence, gore and sexualization.

The parent, whose name was redacted on the form obtained through a public records request, noted “drugs” in the story and referenced a line about a toad puffing a cigar. The parent’s references to violence included quotes about a girl being thrown into an oven, a girl killing a beast and someone killing tadpoles.

The Henrico Public Schools’ instructional materials review committee, in its recommendation to keep the book on shelves, wrote that “empathy was the overarching theme of the novel,” and that the “violence parents point out in the novel is taken out of context.”

A parent in Hanover, Rachel Azurdia, challenged the book “Valiant Ladies” by Melissa Grey earlier this year, and the outcome is pending. In her request to have the book removed from schools, Azurdia wrote that the book promotes “the lesbian lifestyle.”

Hanover Public Schools has been the epicenter of Virginia’s debate over the rights and treatment of LGBTQ students since 2021, with controversy surrounding its policieson what bathrooms transgender students are allowed to use.

The “Valiant Ladies” review is on hold as the School Board considers revisions to its policy on school library books.

The draft proposal, introduced at a board meeting this month, introduces two categories for requests to reconsider books — challenges for “pervasive vulgarity” and challenges for “controversial” material.

The phrase “pervasive vulgarity” is not defined in the draft policy. It mirrors language in a 1982 Supreme Court case opinion that states public schools can ban books that are “pervasively vulgar,” but they cannot remove books “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

“By using vague language such as ‘pervasive vulgarity,’ this kind of policy paves the way for a broad swath of books to be banned,” said Kasey Meehan, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read program.

Under the proposed policy, any book challenged under the pervasive vulgarity category would be immediately removed from school libraries.

 23 Va. school districts have taken books off shelves in past two years

Policies that mandate that any challenged books be removed from shelves immediately pending review violate procedural best practices from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association, which state that a book should remain in circulation while undergoing a reconsideration process.

“Policies that remove books once challenged make it possible for a single parent or single organization in a district to enact a ban on any book simply by challenging it,” Meehan said.

Todd Gathje, an Ashland resident and a lobbyist for The Family Foundation, said the proposed draft policy is a step in the right direction as a means of protecting children from vulgar materials that ultimately impugn what parents may want to teach at home.

“We all need to step back and remember that under Virginia law, parents have the fundamental right to direct the education of their child,” Gathje said in an interview. “And if they feel in any way that their family values are being violated, then they have every right to challenge sexually explicit materials and ensure that it’s not available to their child.”

Gathje said he would also like to see the School Board introduce a reporting mechanism that notifies parents whenever their child checks out a book, so parents can ensure their children are not checking out sexually explicit materials.

The Hanover School Board will revisit its new draft policy at its June meeting.

These were the top books people wanted removed from schools and libraries in 2021

1. ‘Gender Queer’ by Maia Kobabe

Reasons for challenge, according to the ALA: Banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.Find it on Amazon.

2. ‘Lawn Boy’ by Jonathan Evison

Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.Find it on Amazon.

3. ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ by George M. Johnson

Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and profanity and because it was considered to be sexually explicit. Find it on Amazon.

4. ‘Out of Darkness’ by Ashley Hope Perez

Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit. Find it on Amazon.

5. ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity and violence and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda Find it on Amazon.

6. ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and use of a derogatory term.Find it on Amazon.

7. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ by Jesse Andrews

Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women. Find it on Amazon.

8. ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison

Reasons: Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit.Find it on Amazon.

9. ‘Beyond Magenta’ by Susan Kuklin

Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit. Find it on Amazon.

Anna Bryson (804) 649-6922 @AnnaBryson18 on Twitter

Sean Jones (804) 649-6911

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