Spotsylvania County schools will not remove “sexually explicit” books from library shelves or conduct a full audit of library holdings—but some School Board members said they will continue to take a stance against the inclusion of what they view as offensive material in school library books.
The board on Monday night rescinded last week’s directive to pull books with “explicit” content from shelves amid backlash from the public.
The 5–2 vote was not supported by Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail or Livingston representative Kirk Twigg, who last week made comments about burning books with such content.
“I think we should throw those books on the fire,” Abuismail said at the Nov. 8 school board meeting, while Twigg said many “would like to see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”
The board’s vote came shortly after midnight, following four-and-a-half hours of public comment from dozens of parents, students, teachers and librarians. Nearly all of those who made comments at the special-called meeting spoke passionately in support of libraries and books.
Despite multiple demands from speakers that he formally apologize to school division librarians and Superintendent Scott Baker and even resign from his position on the School Board, Abuismail did neither. Instead, he reiterated his stance that books in libraries should be scoured for objectionable content, whether or not it involves LGBTQA+ characters.
He read aloud a passage depicting a sexual encounter between a male teacher and female student from a book that he said is in county middle and high school libraries.
“Now that everyone has gotten everything out about the narrative they want, I just want to real quick show the public why I’m taking a stance against these books,” Abuismail said. “That was not about gay or lesbian, it was the fact that it portrayed pedophilia and it has no room in our schools.”
During the hours of public comment, school community members spoke about libraries as safe spaces and important centers of education for youth and about books as tools for developing empathy and awareness of a wider world.
“This board doesn’t understand who our students really are,” said one county librarian. “We have students who are victims of sexual abuse, who have been forced to prostitute, who have two moms or two dads, who identify as LGBTQ+, whose home is drug-infested. The school library is a safe place for them to find themselves in books.”
Maria Glass, a retired county high school teacher who said she had Abuismail in one of her classes when he was a student in the county, said that of the 7,000 high school students in Spotsylvania, “too many of them are not leading a ‘Brady Bunch’ life.”
“They may be facing a sexual predator or living with abusive parents,” Glass said. “These students live in our community and go to our churches. If there is only one who finds the courage to turn in his predator [after reading a book that deals with that subject], then that book has done its job.”
Students credited books they read in school or checked out of the school library with helping them see themselves, teaching them about difficult subjects and carrying them through challenging times.
A former county student said that as one of few Black students in school, she experienced racist bullying until the class was assigned to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Books teach compassion. They teach empathy,” she said. “After we read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ I wasn’t called the n-word again.”
Courtland High School student Alexander Storen credited books with saving his life last year, during a time when he twice attempted suicide.
“[The book ‘Shattered’] may have saved my life,” he said. “It showed me that my life had meaning, that it mattered. When our School Board, which is supposed to have the best interests of our students at heart, bans books because they contain LGBTQ+ representation, what message is that sending to our teens, to our kids who are at risk? It’s like saying, ‘You don’t matter.’”
The many librarians who spoke begged for the board to respect their education and training in the field of library science and their support for the right of all children to read.
“I tell students, ‘Remember, no one but your own parent or guardian has the right to dictate what you can and can’t read,’” a county librarian said. “Your freedom to read is a constitutional right. I promise my students that I will defend their right to read, so here I am tonight fulfilling that promise.”
The School Board has an established policy—IIA-R—for reviewing instructional and library materials, which was most recently approved in July 2019 .
It states that “the responsibility for the selection of educational materials is delegated to professional instructional personnel employed by the Board” and that it is “a continuous process which involves principals, supervisors, faculty, parents, and students.”
In addition to timeliness, authoritativeness, format and cost, objectivity, quality and appropriateness to age and grade level, criteria for selecting instructional material, per the policy, include “representation of differing points of view on controversial subjects.”
The policy states that anyone wishing to challenge instructional material must fill out a form and file it with the school principal. The form asks whether the complainant has read the book or listened to or viewed the material “in its entirety” and if the answer is no, asks that the complainant do so before completing the form.
After receiving the form, the school principal is to establish an ad hoc review committee to examine the material, using a checklist, within 15 days. The principal then decides what action to take and notifies the superintendent and complainant.
Speakers accused the School Board of violating this policy by calling for an overarching audit of all library holdings.
They also accused Twigg and Abuismail of disregarding the School Board’s Code of Ethics, which all members sign and which includes the following:
- “I will delegate authority for the administration of the schools to the superintendent and establish a process for accountability of administrators.”
- “I will bring about desired changes through legal and ethical procedures, upholding and enforcing all laws, state regulations and court orders pertaining to schools.”
- “I will refrain from using the board position for personal or partisan gain and avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety.”
- “I will always remember that the foremost concern of the board is to improve and enhance the teaching and learning experience for all students in the public schools of Virginia.”
One speaker accused Abuismail of violating this code and urged school division librarians to file formal complaints with the school division’s human resources department.
Many speakers called for Abuismail to issue a formal apology to the school division’s 34 librarians—who were pulled from their regular duties last week to scour their collections for content some might find offensive, several said—as well as to Baker and teachers.
Some speakers called for Abuismail to resign his position.
“The only course of action I see fit for you is a formal public apology to all the librarians of this county and for you to submit your resignation from the school board,” one parent said.
County students sat at the front of the Chancellor High School auditorium—where the meeting was held to accommodate the large number of speakers expected to turn out—holding signs in protest against censorship and book-burning and calling for Abuismail to “resign or face recall.” A petition calling for his removal had 1,045 signatures as of Monday night.
Two speakers, both high school students, spoke in favor of removing books from library shelves.
A Massaponax High School senior said that books that depict prostitution, drug addiction or illegal sexual relations with minors “are intended to normalize disturbing situations like that” and should not be accessible to students, while a Riverbend High School senior accused teachers and School Board members of “arguing to keep pornographic materials in public school libraries.”
School Board Chair Dawn Shelley announced at the beginning of the public comments period that comments would be cut off at midnight. At midnight, Lee Hill representative Lisa Phelps moved to continue public comments to allow more people to speak, but this motion failed.
The issue of library book content has been on the radar of some board members since this summer, when Phelps asked that the board withhold approving the donation of several hundred books by publishers. At the board’s July 12 meeting, Phelps said she thinks some of the titles would be more suited to a college library and asked for more information about where the books would be sent.
At the Nov. 8 meeting, Abuismail cited one of the books from this list—”Were I Not a Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry,” a picture book about a 19th-century girl who dressed as a boy from the age of 18 on in order to attend medical school—as one that he thinks should not be in school division libraries.
The issue is likely to come back up when some new members take seats on the board in January.