Hamilton County school board member questions 'vile content' in library books as parent group plans to 'fight for diverse literature'

Staff File Photo by Matt Hamilton / School board member Rhonda Thurman.

Hamilton County Board of Education member Rhonda Thurman of Hixson expressed concern over the use of curse words and references to sex and violence depicted in library books found in Hamilton County Schools in a Wednesday opinion article.

"The volume of what I have been sent is mind-numbing. I am still in disbelief this insanity is allowed in our school libraries and classrooms," Thurman said in the article.

Thurman referenced four books: "More Than We Can Tell" by Brigid Kemmerer, "On the Come Up" by Angie Thomas, "Far from the Tree" by Robin Benway and "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas.

The young adult books tackle multiple social issues including adoption and foster care, abuse and childhood trauma, poverty, racial inequality and police brutality targeting African Americans, according to descriptions on book review website Goodreads.

(READ MORE: Signal Mountain teacher removes two books with African American perspective from reading list)

None of the books are part of the Hamilton County Schools curriculum, said spokesperson Cody Patterson in a Friday email, but "The Hate U Give" is listed as an optional text for book clubs by the district's publisher for high school literature.

Thurman said the issue was brought to her attention by parents at the August school board meeting, some of whom belong to the local chapter of national group Moms for Liberty, and that she asked for copies of the books mentioned by speakers after the meeting.

Moms for Liberty member Laura Chandler addressed the board at the August meeting about "More Than We Can Tell" and said it was recommended by a librarian at Soddy Daisy High School.

"While I realize these students are not all saints, and most have heard this type of language, it is not OK for a school to be recommending it. Does anyone else review these books after they are recommended? There are millions and millions of well-written, enlightening novels our children are missing out on only to be replaced with this?" Chandler told the board as several meeting attendees applauded.

Asked if the four books were present in school system libraries, Patterson said the district would not be able to provide that information until after fall break.

photo AP File Photo / Two books by author Angie Thomas, left, are being questioned by Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman. Thomas is seen here at a Jackson, Miss., reception honoring her writing in 2018.

Hamilton County Board of Education Policy 4.402, Selection of Instructional Materials (Other than Textbooks), states that library books are monitored but that families can have "sensitive content" reviewed by the district under another policy 4.403, the Reconsideration of Instructional Materials and Textbooks.

"Parental disclosure and prior notice does not include books located in the school library or classroom that are intended to provide optional reading material on each student's individual reading level. These books will continually be monitored; however, there may be sensitive content contained in these books that was not previously reviewed by school personnel," the policy states.

Policy 4.403 states that families can file a "Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials" form. Upon receipt of the form, the school's principal and any teachers or librarians involved review the complaint and assign it to a "review committee," which has 15 days to read the material and reviews of the material, hold a hearing with the involved faculty members and make a decision.

The committee consists of district administrators, a principal from a school with the same grade bands, a school board member and a teacher's union representative from the school where the complaint was filed.

Patterson said the district has received three requests for reconsideration - one for "Far from the Tree" on Oct. 12 and two on Oct. 13 for "The Hate U Give" and "On the Come Up."

"Dealing with controversial topics and texts is not a new issue, and a process has been in place because our board policy has always required it. We are constantly reviewing and assessing materials. We must be mindful that adopted, taught curriculum has a very detailed process. We have received three requests for reconsideration, and we will follow the board policy to review them," Patterson said.

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"There is a different process when a resource, text, or source is optional and a choice. In our efforts toward continuous improvement, we are reviewing our processes to ensure we are meeting the needs of families, students, and staff. We always start with law and policy to create better and more transparent processes," he said.

Another parent group, Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice, plans to protest at Thursday's school board meeting to "fight for diverse literature that represents a variety of experiences," according to a Facebook event posting. The group has worked with school district teachers and literacy groups to develop classroom libraries in the district.

"MSJ will continue to advocate for inclusive reading choices because we know that seeing ourselves represented in books has a positive impact on what and how much we read. For these reasons, we make no apologies. Let them read, let them learn and let them think," the group said on Facebook.

The board will discuss an agenda item clarifying who makes the final decision for books to be used as part of curriculum at the 5:30 p.m. Thursday meeting at district headquarters, 3074 Hickory Valley Road.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.