Parents and guardians whose children attend Hamilton County Schools will now be the only individuals who can make formal complaints about books and other materials.
The new policy, passed at Thursday's board meeting, states that a person must have standing with the district to complain, meaning they must legally care for a child who is directly affected. The policy encompasses all materials provided by the district and is not limited to the school the child attends.
The policy passed by an 8-0 vote, with board member Tiffanie Robinson, an independent from Chattanooga, absent. It outlines a new complaint procedure, which the district did not have in place before Thursday:
1. A complainant must submit a Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials form, which the school principal and teacher will review for validity.
2. Upon receipt of the completed form, the principal will request a review of the challenged material within 20 working days. The principal will form an ad hoc materials review committee. Committee members will be the executive director or director of teaching, the president of the school's parent-teacher association or other parent representative appointed by the principal, a principal of a county school serving the same grade levels and in the same learning community as the schools in which the complaint was made, and a teacher in a county school serving the same grade levels and in the same learning community as the school in which the complaint was made.
Committee members will determine whether the material aligns with the district's criteria for selecting materials and will issue their decision to the school's principal. The complainant then has 15 days to appeal the committee's decision to the Board of Education, which can sustain the review committee or grant a new hearing, the policy states.
Board member Rhonda Thurman of Hixson wanted to confirm that parents of a student in the district could raise concerns about instructional materials in any school - not just the school attended by their child. District officials confirmed that would be allowed.
School board attorney Scott Bennett told board members that community members may still exercise their First Amendment rights and express disagreement before the board, but those without a student in the district will not have access to the procedure to have a hearing at the school level.
What community members can say before the board as it relates to books has yet to be determined. Bennett said the policy leaves room for the board to decide what that may look like.
Independent board member Jenny Hill, of Chattanooga, said letting anyone come before the board about materials is a waste of time.
"If you want to let anybody come and read from a book without context, you're inviting chaos," Hill said. "That is not productive. And I would question if that was a good use of the board's time. I would say it is not. And I pity the board that decides to sit through that again."
The board also passed a new material selection policy 7-1. It includes the provision that while some materials may be considered offensive, they may still be used if they demonstrate educational and literary merit.
Independent Marco Perez of Signal Mountain took issue with the word "offensive," and he cast the lone no vote as a result.
"That's a very general broad term to me," Perez said, "which doesn't really establish parameters at all."
Bennett responded by saying that, legally, the term is intended to be broad.
"Offensiveness is actually a term used in the law by the Supreme Court to recognize that community standards do differ," Bennett said. "And this local Board of Education is, in large measure, the arbiter of community standards here in this town. And so you are the voices of your constituents. They speak their values to you, and you impart that into the school system."
Perez said he understood but it didn't alleviate his concerns.
"My concern here, when I think about this in practice, is that schools, in order to just avoid any tension, (administrators) will choose the lowest common denominator," Perez said.
Board member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, agreed with Perez.
"All this criteria allows it to become subjective," Jones said. "And I agree with Marco because what may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another."
Bennett replied that the policy was designed to prevent censorship and protect offensive material that also has value.
"You can't ban ideas," Bennett said. "So you can't say, 'We don't like the content of this, the ideas behind this. We think this is anti-American or we think this is anti-whatever.'"
He added that age-appropriateness can be regulated.
The new policy also outlines criteria for the inclusion of materials that contain mature content, coarse language and suggestive themes.
Among other criteria, administrators must consider "the extent to which the content may be considered offensive to contemporary, graphic depictions of violence or sex, etc.," it states. Donated materials will not enter the library or classroom collections without consideration of the selection criteria.
Hill said she hopes administrators will select materials based on their value and not disregard certain books out of fear someone may take issue with it.
"I will implore our staff to have a backbone so as to avoid weaker, less courageous choices of just pulling things willy-nilly so as not to have to go through (the complaint) process," Hill said.
Contact Carmen Nesbitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.