It was a pleasure to ban.
Parents and school staff spoke Monday night about Horry County Schools’ new process for choosing books from school libraries. Last week, the school board has decided that a special committee will decide what new books and materials are available on each school’s shelves. This task traditionally fell to the school librarian.
“If this committee would just encourage more input from school members and parents, that would be very, very welcome,” said Meredith Ritchie, school librarian at Blackwater Middle School. “However, having a school-level library media advisory committee that has to approve every book purchase hurts the improvement of the library’s collection and somewhat belittles your school’s librarians who work very hard to get to know the student population as a whole and try to make the collection as strong as possible.
For each school, the new library media advisory committee will include the school library specialist, an administrator, a teacher representing core content, an instructional coach, and four parents who sit on the parent council, advisory council, School Improvement Board or PTO Board. The school principal will select the members of the committee.
The committee will review library needs, approve materials before they are placed in the library, and provide feedback on the school library/media center annually.
The discussion about school library books in Horry County comes amid a national conversation about school material content and censorship.
Earlier this year, the non-profit organization PEN America released a report outlining a growing national movement to ban books in schools. The report’s data comes from the 2021-2022 academic year and found more than 1,600 cases of banned titles. Of these, 41% dealt specifically with LGBTQ+ themes and 21% dealt with race and racism.
Nationally, PEN America has identified at least 50 groups advocating for book bans. The “most banned” books of the 2021-2022 school year included “Beloved” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, according to the nonprofit organization’s report.
Closer to home, last year Governor Henry McMaster called for Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” to be removed from public school libraries. The book focuses on gender identity.
“The concern about the banning of the books we have here in Horry County follows other concerning reports the ACLU has received about library censorship efforts taking place elsewhere,” said Nick Mercer, a resident of Horry County and a staff member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“Removing books from school library shelves is a concerning encroachment on students’ First Amendment rights. I’m sure there are books you don’t like. There are books that I don’t like either. But, as you all know, I don’t decide what other people read and I don’t think the government should either.
Speakers at Monday’s board meeting generally fell into one of two camps: those who supported the library’s papers undergoing further scrutiny and those worried about limiting the access to learning materials.
Ritchie pointed out that school librarians consult review bodies when considering new titles and often match abstracts to student interests.
“Let me be very clear,” she said. “Parents should and always have had the ability to restrict what their children can check. …However, having school officials and parents on the advisory committee allows those seven or eight people to have a say in what each student is allowed to read. It’s not quite fair. Giving the committee and especially the parents a veto over the ordering of a book without the parents knowing the entire student population or the students’ information about reading levels or areas of interest is not just not right.
Across the district, schools in Horry County already have five books that are on a restricted access list, which means a parent must sign a release form for the student to view the title. Not all books on the restricted list are available at every school. For example, three of the restricted books are at Blackwater Middle and each is “LGBT affirming,” Ritchie said.
“It should be up to parents who want to restrict access to titles to contact the librarian,” she said. “Access restriction should never be default on a library title. …I have a lot of students asking for LGBT-affirming books. They don’t learn these terms in my library. They find them on their own out of sheer curiosity and, for many, in search of a book that can begin to tell their own story.
According to the policy approved by the board last week, criteria for selecting library materials vary by grade level, but content relevance is considered.
If a parent challenges library materials or books, the complaint may be heard by a committee selected by the superintendent. This committee would consist of the district library media services coordinator, the district director of professional development, two school board members, district library media specialists, a district teacher, a district director and four members of advisory councils or parent cabinets. .
Julinna Oxley, the mother of an eighth-grader at Ten Oaks Middle School, called the new book selection process “too complicated and cumbersome”. She also fears that the committee system will arbitrarily delete texts based on the whims of a few parents.
“What I fear is that the policy is really not about eliminating sexually explicit material,” she said. “Maybe it’s just a cover for censorship.”
School district officials have pointed out that they rarely purge books from the HCS collection. Over the past 20 years, the district has pulled only two titles from its shelves.
But some of those who addressed the council on Tuesday expressed concern about ‘pornography’ in libraries, although they did not mention any title by name.
“You have accepted a civic responsibility and a moral responsibility,” Ken Coleman told the board. “And you cannot escape this moral responsibility. … Focusing on things these kids don’t need to see is ridiculous. They must learn the basics of mathematics and English literature.
Jennifer Hannigan offered a similar assessment. She thanked the board for recognizing the need for parent involvement in book selection.
“It’s not about banning these books,” she said. “It’s about protecting and doing what’s best for our children. It’s about keeping politics and sex out of the classroom.
David Warner, a parent and former school board candidate, said some books should be removed because they depict explicit sexual abuse.
“Some of these books actually contain child rape,” he said. “They are very explicit. They talk very precisely about what happened and about every little detail.
After Monday’s meeting, board chair Ken Richardson said HCS had no plans to change the library’s policy.
“When it was first introduced to us, we didn’t feel like there were enough parents,” he said of the school-level committees. “So we dropped it off, then brought it back two weeks later and came back and doubled the number of parents who would be involved to give parents more voice and make it more transparent.”