Walker County mother concerned about school libraries

Jenn Smeiles, a parent of three living in Chickamauga, Georgia, said she's seen the news and viral videos about inappropriate material in school libraries nationwide - but didn't think it could happen in Walker County.

Based on her recent research, Smeiles now thinks she was wrong.

"As I have taken many hours over the past few months looking through the media center listings of the 15 Walker County schools, my heart has been broken and my mind blown that such vulgar, racist, harmful content is available to our students," she said at Monday night's Walker County Board of Education meeting.

In a phone interview, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said the board and his staff are reviewing the material Smeiles presented. Raines said Smeiles was referencing a materials list the school system no longer uses, and the board needs to determine if those books are still available and how to proceed from there.

Raines said Walker County has had a policy in place since 2006 that allows parents of an enrolled child to bring concerns to the school's media specialist or principal. Along with a review process that can end in having a book removed from the school library, parents can opt their child out of having to use a specific piece of media for assignments.

New procedures will be developed based on new laws passed by the state, but Raines said most of those changes involve adding new timelines to processes already in place.

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In her presentation to the board last week, Smeiles said she didn't want to read any of the material she found objectionable because she had her three young children with her. Book banning isn't her goal, she said. She thinks a good solution would be to have an age-appropriate rating system like the ones used for movies.

"Most parents don't think they have to worry because they have trusted the schools to only provide age-appropriate books that contain serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors," Smeiles said.

She said she found books that contain explicit sexual activities, explicit violence, inflammatory racial commentary, homosexuality, excessive drug and alcohol abuse and radical activist ideology.

Along with research on how over-sexualization harms children, Smeiles gave a few examples of books she found problematic.

"The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, a novel about a Black girl who witnesses the shooting death of her friend by police, was one example given by Smeiles. A review by Book Look she presented said the book contains inflammatory racial commentary, profanity and explicit sex. The book received the Goodreads Choice Awards Best of the Best award in 2018.

On its website, Book Look describes itself as, " a group of volunteers reading, preparing reports and exposing the content of books that contain concerning material. Currently, our focus is on sexually explicit material and keeping it out of our schools, but all book reports with any concerning material are accepted."

Other books she referenced include "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for young people's literature, and "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, which was in 2010 named by Time magazine among the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

The books contain inflammatory racial commentary, explicit violence and drug abuse, Book Look found.

Smeiles said she home-schools her children, a choice she and her husband made soon after the pandemic began.

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Raines said the fact that Smeiles' children aren't enrolled in Walker County Schools doesn't lessen the board's interest in her concern. "Anytime somebody from the community comes to us with a concern, we're going to address it," Raines said. He also disagreed with Smeiles' claim that parents don't have access to what's being taught to their children.

Raines said several new pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly will all have to be implemented on the local level.

"There's a lot of new information Georgia school systems will soon be pushing out to parents," he said, referring to a law regulating harmful materials, a parental bill of rights and divisive concepts law. He said that's all to make sure parents are involved in the process.

In a text message, board member Karen Harden wrote that the board appreciated Smeiles' reaching out about the books. The board is reviewing the list of material Smeiles provided, she wrote.

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With her husband and children waiting nearby, Smeiles talked to the Chattanooga Times Free Press after her presentation last week. When asked if there's anything else she wanted parents to know, Smeiles said that she wants parents to know for certain what their children are learning - and get involved.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.