Committee to address concerns about reading materials in Hamilton County schools

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County school board chair Tucker McClendon speaks during the board's Dec. 9 meeting.

At the request of Hamilton County school board chair Tucker McClendon of East Ridge, the district is forming a special committee to "review reading material content concerns and explore options available to address those concerns," according to a memorandum from McClendon to the board.

"I think we have seen from community members, and it's been brought to the board that there are some concerns about what's in our libraries," McClendon said during a phone interview. "It has nothing to do with banning books or getting rid of books or anything like that.

"I think one thing that the board has seen is, there's not a real clear process and guidelines to how books get in our libraries, what's the vetting process, etc., etc., so this committee is being charged to look at that - what improvements can we make, how can we make it an easier process for our parents to know what's in our libraries, what books their kids are checking out, etc."

Board members voted 6-2 at their Dec. 9 meeting to form the committee, with all but Marco Perez of Signal Mountain and Jenny Hill of North Chattanooga voting in favor. Tiffanie Robinson of Chattanooga was absent.

Each school board member has appointed two individuals residing in their district to serve on the committee, which will be chaired by school board member Rhonda Thurman of Hixson and Superintendent Justin Robertson or a designee.

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

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / School board member Jenny Hill speaks on Dec. 9.

"We started today getting the contact information for the people that board members have suggested, and so we'll start moving forward in the next week or so with getting that meeting on the books for them," McClendon said Monday.

Committee meetings will be open to the public, and the panel will present its findings to the board by March. After making its recommendations to the board, the committee will be dissolved, according to board policy.

The committee is tasked with reviewing policies related to reading materials, although the board did not specify which reading materials will be covered.

"Curriculum materials come through approved state resources, so I think the intent is that it would not include reading materials that are part of the curriculum," Hill said by phone.

Before the vote, Perez said he was not in favor of the committee because he did not want the panel to be a focus of the superintendent during his first 100 days in office.

"I don't think it's our job to be selecting for all parents what their children should read," Perez said.

Hill made a motion before the vote to amend the guidelines for committee members to require that the panel include librarians at the elementary, middle and high school levels as well as board attorney Scott Bennett.

The amendment failed by 4-4 vote, with Thurman, Hill, Karitsa Jones of Lake Hills and Joe Smith of Hixson voting in favor.

Hill said by phone Monday she appointed a librarian and an attorney from her district to serve on the committee.

"I wanted an attorney on the committee so the volunteers could understand the role of the First Amendment as it relates to students and as it relates to teachers in schools," she said. "I want to give our volunteers the best tools possible to help them do the job that they offer their time to do on behalf of our community."

In October 2021, Thurman raised concern over the content of reading material in schools, saying the books include "vile content." Specific books she referenced include "Far from the Tree" by Robin Benway and "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, among others.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Board member Rhonda Thurman talked about the advantages of hiring from within the system. The Hamilton County Board of Education voted to hire Justin Robertson as the school system's next superintendent on December 9, 2021.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County parents, school board weigh in on explicit language, themes in children's books)

"The main thing about this is transparency for the parents," Thurman said before the vote, regarding the purpose of the committee. "I have copies of some of the reviews of these books that I've handed out, and people are astounded."

She said she wants everything the committee discusses to be put on the Hamilton County Schools website.

"This is just about informing parents about some books that are available to our students that their tax dollars pay for," Thurman said. "An informed public is a good thing, in my opinion."

She said by phone Monday the specifics of the committee's purpose and what it will do will be discussed at an upcoming school board meeting.

The issue was first raised in August by the conservative group Moms for Liberty at a school board meeting.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / School board member Marco Perez speaks at the Dec. 9 meeting.