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Rockingham County grapples with removal of school library books

German Caamano

As their first order of business in 2024, the Rockingham County School Board temporarily removed – or prevented the acquisition of – 57 school library books. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

On January 8th, the school board voted four to one to remove 57 books from the county's school libraries, pending the creation of a new review process that has not yet been established. They cited sexual content, violence, and profanity as their concerns.

Hollie Cave, a homeschool mom serving her first term on the school board, was one of the candidates who campaigned on this issue. She made the motion for removal, saying –

HOLLIE CAVE: I have spent hours at night time going through and reading some of these books, and I am, [pauses] I don't even know the word for it. Torn up.

Both critics and supporters of the decision spoke out at a subsequent board meeting. Groups of high school students walked out of class in protest, as The Harrisonburg Citizen reported. The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to the school board, asking them to return books to the shelves. The books in question include seven titles that were not in the school libraries. Just over a third focus on queer or trans characters. Thirteen of them were written by authors of color. Many deal with difficult themes, including addiction, abuse, and self-harm.

School Board Chair Matt Cross says themes of race and LGBTQ characters were not factors when considering which books to remove.

Matt Cross has served on the school board since 2022.
Rockingham County School Board
Matt Cross has served on the school board since 2022.

MATT CROSS: It's not targeting the LGBTQ community. It's sexual – across the board – content, and then it's also explicit language that we're talking about within the books. How many f-bombs need to be in one book, and what kind of educational purpose does that serve? And then the violence that our children are being exposed to is very important as well.

But some are asking if all 57 books have objectionable content, as the board has defined it. Sixteen-year-old Alex Lunsford helped organize the walkout at Turner Ashby High School. He says there are queer books on the list that aren't sexually explicit, like the "Heartstopper" series.

ALEX LUNSFORD: And I do love those books. I don't really know why they were banned, but again, a lot of themes about mental health and queer joy and queer relationships are a really big part of those books. … The graphic novel "Drama" I read, probably, in the fifth grade, and that one's about middle schoolers. There's nothing close to anything sexual.

While there are still queer stories in the high school library, he says it's sad that some were taken away.

Alex Lunsford is a sophomore at Turner Ashby High School.
Alex Lunsford
Alex Lunsford is a sophomore at Turner Ashby High School.

LUNSFORD: This just felt like they were trying to erase queer people, queer stories, people of color and their stories, and a lot of people with … mental health issues.

Cross acknowledged that some of the removed books could be returned to the libraries after being reviewed.

He also shared a personal anecdote that's guided him in this endeavor. In "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, a character makes a racist joke. This concerns Cross because, one day, he watched a historical movie with his son that included a racial slur, before the child was mature enough to understand its severity.

CROSS: I exposed my child to that, to the historical content of that, for him to go to school and then actually say that word and then hurt a young girl's feelings really bad. To the point where I took him, the same day, to that family, and had him apologize to the child in front of the grandparents. … There are books that have … racial slurs in there, that I personally wish that we didn't have in our school libraries at all.

Vice-Chair Sara Horst used to be a teacher and reading specialist in the public schools. She read about 20 books that concerned parents brought up with her. One that made it to the removal list, "A Court of Mist and Fury," is a fantasy novel that does have a lot of sex scenes.

Sara Horst started her first term on the school board this month.
Rockingham County School Board
Sara Horst started her first term on the school board this month.

SARA HORST: I read and I go, "wow, great story," until you get to about [chuckles], several chapters in, and then all of a sudden there is sexually explicit content in there … very detailed and very, very graphic.

The school district does already have a policy for reviewing curricular materials, and it has been used in the past for challenging library books. But Horst would like to write new policies that involve more parents in vetting what goes into the school library.

HORST: We're not book banners. You can still go get that book from Massanutten Regional Library. We're just saying, not on our watch, are children going to have access to these kinds of things.

Dee Grimm, a retired teacher who taught English, theater, and AP courses in Rockingham County, wrote in a letter to the school board that removing books outside of an established review process was a "rushed and careless move."

Dee Grimm is a retired educator who taught 7th through 12th grade during her career with Rockingham County Public Schools.
Dee Grimm
Dee Grimm is a retired educator who taught 7th through 12th grade during her career with Rockingham County Public Schools.

DEE GRIMM: This is a manufactured crisis. … Kids have access to far more on their phones, and these phones are in the building with them all the time.

She asserts that literature is a constructive way for kids to engage with challenging topics.

GRIMM: I think, if you work with teens, and you know teens in a public high school setting, none of these issues are alien to them or foreign to them, and they don't discover them in these books. They are living with them, and sadly, that's true for the abuse and some of the other darker, heavier topics. Which, yes, they are heavier to consider, but they are the reality for many students, and to 'find yourself in a book,' which is the phrase that's often thrown around, is powerful.

The school board is holding a work session this Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. Cross and Horst said this would be the first of several opportunities for the community to help shape the division's new book policies.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.