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Hempfield school board shelves any changes to its library book policy and selections for now

Hempfield school board shelves any changes to its library book policy and selections for now

The Hempfield Area School Board next month will further discuss the possibility of tweaking a policy related to reevaluating course materials after high school students were allowed access to two books deemed inappropriate by a small group of parents.

The board’s policy committee on Friday decided to not move forward with any immediate changes to a policy that determines how school materials are reevaluated if questioned by a parent.

Board members will meet April 4 in the high school library to further discuss the situation.

The conversation arose after a committee reviewed two books challenged by a few parents. The committee ultimately determined students could have access to the texts.

Now, the board in April will hear a presentation from district librarians regarding the process of how texts are selected. Members also will discuss policy procedures, the makeup of the committee that reviews materials in question and how to inform parents of ways to view books available in the library.

“I still think there has to be a way to give parents who don’t want to have their kids getting their hands on certain materials help,” board President Tony Bompiani said. “If there isn’t, there isn’t. But I don’t want to let any stones (remain unturned).”

Over the past several months, several parents have questioned “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which chronicles Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black boy. That text is available only virtually.

Parents also questioned “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person” by Frederick Joseph, which reflects the author’s experiences on racism.

A formal complaint was filed against the books, both of which went through the review process laid out in the policy.

As the policy stands, a resident of the district can formally request the reevaluation of instructional or resource materials in the district’s library or classrooms. During informal challenges, the building principal will attempt to resolve the issues by explaining the procedure, criteria and qualifications for selecting the resource.

If the issue is not resolved, the resident can file a formal challenge, which is reviewed by the superintendent.

A committee — made up of the school librarian, the library department chair, a teacher based on the content area of the book, a parent, a student, the complainant, the assistant superintendent and the superintendent — will then read the entirety of the book being challenged. After that, the committee meets and reviews the book using a series of questions laid out in the policy.

The school board will discuss the possibility of adding more members to the committee in an attempt to make for a fairer process.

They also will discuss the possibility of permitting parents to virtually view which books their child checks out of the library, and promote a website where parents can see the library’s entire catalog.

“I feel our policy worked. … But I do think we can look at some of the parts of our policy and probably make them better and fairer for everybody,” School Director Jeanne Smith said.

Other suggestions

During the policy committee meeting, several members expressed discomfort over the contents of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” of which a section was read aloud by a parent during a school board meeting last month.

But the committee balked at outright banning books.

“I didn’t like the excerpt that was read to us, and I had a negative reaction to it. And I can understand why some parents are upset with it,” Smith said. “But I feel it does come down to who gets to decide what your child reads or what my child reads.

”I think it’s a personal decision for parents. I don’t think I have the right to decide what your grandkids or kids could read … and I don’t think you have the right to tell me.”

Bompiani suggested separating books deemed offensive and requiring parent permission for a student to check out a book from that section.

“I’m advocating here to find common ground to separate them,” he said. “Still let them be available, but separate them. Because I was disgusted by that book and the only reason was because of the graphic nature of it. … I don’t need to read it when I had a page read to me and I hear the garbage that was on that page.”

School Director Jennifer Bretz agreed, adding, “For me, personally, it wasn’t whether it was straight or gay sex, it was just that it was sexually explicit. I found it offensive to even be in a library, and as a parent I found it offensive. Something like that, I would prefer to have that separate, anything that explicit sexually.”

Nicole Owens, the high school librarian, however, suggested creating a separate section would put a burden on librarians.

“I wouldn’t want to place that burden on myself or any librarian out there,” Owens said. “I think that the review of the book is good because we read the book in its entirety. You can’t really pass a judgement on a book until you know the full context of everything that the author is saying.”

Superintendent Tammy Wolicki supported the policy as it stands.

“The library’s open,” Wolicki said. “Children can walk in and pick up a library book. I wouldn’t want the librarian to feel they’re now the police and they need to watch who goes to a certain section and picks up a book.”

James Steeley, the English department chair, suggested separating books will not help the situation. Instead, he said, parents should be involved in their child’s education.

“I think if you physically start polarizing books, you’re not helping,” Steeley said. “I think you start separating groups. Parents should have access to as much as they possibly can.”

Director Diane Ciabattoni added that separating books only shines a spotlight on them.

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .