Hamilton County school board accepts report from book review committee

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Supporters hold up photos as Taylor Lyons addresses the Hamilton County school board during a meeting Thursday, March 17, 2022.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Supporters hold up photos as Taylor Lyons addresses the Hamilton County school board during a meeting Thursday, March 17, 2022.

The process of amending Hamilton County Board of Education policies on reading materials took another step forward Thursday night as Rhonda Thurman of Hixson, chair of a special book review committee, presented a report on her panel's work to the board.

Composed of two community representatives from each board district, the committee was asked to make recommendations for board policy changes related to the selection of school reading materials and the process for review when complaints about the content of reading materials are submitted. The committee has completed its job after three discussion-filled meetings.

Nearly a dozen people with varying views on school reading materials spoke at Thursday's meeting.

"I'm not saying it's wrong to have concerns about what your child is privy to or want transparency, because I don't know a single parent who doesn't care about what their children have access to," said Angela Favaloro, who served on the book review committee. "We just have different ideas of what narratives and storytelling are for and their overall value."

School board attorney Scott Bennett presented a draft of the revised policy for discussion at the committee's final meeting March 8.

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In Policy 4.402, Selection of Instructional Materials (Other than Textbooks) - which states that "particular attention will be paid to addressing the suitability of instructional materials that include content which might be considered sensitive to parents or students" - the revised policy draft replaces "sensitive" with "offensive to community standards."

In the revised policy the "criteria for selection" of materials is changed to "criteria for review." It adds to the criteria the consideration of "the extent to which the content may be considered offensive to community standards on the basis of profane language, graphic depictions of violence or sex, etc."

"In the event the administration or the board determines that a work is offensive but nevertheless offers literary value, then steps will be taken to advise parents or guardians when their students have accessed any such material," the proposed policy states.

The policy changes also prohibit donations from being added to library collections without consideration of the criteria for review.

In Policy 4.403, Reconsideration of Instructional Materials and Textbooks, a statement in support of the principles of intellectual freedom expressed in the "Library Bill of Rights" of the American Library Association is removed in the policy draft.

The revised policy draft would also prohibit anyone from addressing the board about the content of any book or other instructional material without first following the procedure outlined in the policy.

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Bennett is preparing an updated version of revised policy draft, which along with the committee members' recommendations will be sent to board policy committee chair James Walker.

Once the revised policy has been reviewed by the school board's policy committee, it will come back before the board for discussion and a vote, and a second vote is required for a policy change, Thurman said.

The Hamilton County school board's policy changes come as the Tennessee legislature sends to Gov. Bill Lee's desk a school library bill that would require public schools to publish lists of the materials in their collections and to periodically review the materials for "age-appropriateness" beginning this fall.

Known as the Age Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, the bill leaves the definition of what is age-appropriate up to local school boards, which are each required to adopt a policy that establishes procedures for the development and review of school library collections.

A second piece of state legislation, a bill prohibiting "obscene" materials in school libraries, is in the state House.

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