Hamilton County book review panel hears attorney suggestions, makes final comments on book policies

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Hamilton County Schools book review committee meets Tuesday, March 8, 2022, in the Hamilton County Board of Education boardroom.

During its final meeting Tuesday, the Hamilton County school board's book review committee heard suggestions from the board attorney and provided final comments on two board policies concerning school decisions on instructional and non-instructional material.

The committee was formed at the request of Hamilton County school board chair Tucker McClendon to "review reading material content concerns and explore options available to address those concerns."

During its initial meeting Feb. 8, the group struggled to define its mission and scope and settled on considering potential changes to one school board policy on selecting instructional materials other than textbooks and another policy for reconsidering instructional materials and textbooks.

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

On Tuesday, school board attorney Scott Bennett presented his suggested revisions, ones he said are based on precedent by the Supreme Court and previous feedback received from the book review committee in order to provide clearer guidance on the process and account for community standards and input about where to draw the line on what's appropriate for students.

"I think most people believe that there's a line," Bennett said. "The question becomes where do you draw that line? And I would respectfully suggest that that's the job of the school board, informed by the Constitution pursuant to a well-established policy."

He and committee chair and school board member Rhonda Thurman then took questions from the panel concerning wording, processes and logistics of the proposed changes.

The presented revisions for the policy on selecting materials included changing the wording of "Criteria for Selection" to "Criteria for Review of Material," as book collections that may contain objectionable content already exist in schools.

"The board isn't a giant book club, going through and looking at each of these books, right? There has to be a process," Bennett said.

According to the policy, the criteria for selection currently include considerations such as educational purpose, contribution the subject matter makes to the curriculum and appropriateness to social, emotional and intellectual level of the intended audience.

Bennett's suggestions also adjusted the wording of "sensitive" material to read as material "offensive to community standards" for things such as profane language and graphic depictions of violence or sex. The policy specifies that materials with such content can still be used if the relative literary value outweighs the offensive nature of the content.

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

The presented revisions for the policy on reconsidering materials included striking a portion of the policy that the board supports principles set forth by the "Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association," and would change school level book review committees to be composed of just three, rather than five, members - including an executive director or director of teaching and learning, president of a parent-teacher association and a principal from a similar school in the district."

Bennett said the policies are meant to inform decisions that will in most cases be made on a school-by-school basis, rather than a countywide approach.

In response to the presentation, members of the panel raised questions about the definition of community as well as how cultural biases might play into decisions on books across the district. Other comments questioned the policy's process for future reconsideration for books that have been removed, the use of the word "review" instead of "selection" and what the procedures would look like in real time.

During the meeting, a few panel members, including Meg Day, questioned if there was even a need to change policy, as she noted librarians already have a handbook and policy that is informed by district standards that appears to be working as at least three books have already been brought through review this school year.

"It sounds like they're following the board policy pretty well," Day said. "And I'm really having a hard time understanding what the problem is within our school communities."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Republicans at odds on how far to go in pushing 'obscene' books legislation)

Thurman replied that concerns have been raised by community members in Hamilton County, as well as across the country, and that it is the school board's job to seek public opinion, including through the panel, and make adjustments as something seems to have fallen through the cracks.

"We're just trying to clarify, to make sure that everybody understands, and we want the public to know that they can trust this board," Thurman said. "When these books are put in our library that they can trust us to have done our due diligence, to vet these books before they get there instead of everybody saying, 'Well, you know we follow the policy.'"

Bennett said he believes the policy is already well written but could use clarity.

"I think it has lacked what I would call the balancing test for people to know that there's maybe an avenue to object to a book that might be offensive," he said.

There appeared to still be confusion among panel members about the purpose of the group. But according to Thurman, the goal of the panel was to hear from community members. All final decisions about any changes to policies would be in the hands of school board members, she said.

Thurman and Bennett said a summary of recommendations from the committee would be taken to the board at its next meeting on March 17.

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com.