The decision to pull books from a summer reading list in Chesterfield County after parents complained that they were laden with sexually explicit language and violence has drawn the attention of a state senator and criticism from national free-speech advocacy groups.
In June, Donna Dalton, chief academic officer for Chesterfield schools, said during a School Board meeting that the division issued a revised summer reading list after parents expressed concern over the content and language in some of the books, according to meeting minutes.
A committee is reviewing the books and is expected to deliver a report to Superintendent James F. Lane in September.
School Board members have withheld commenting publicly about the issue pending a report from the superintendent after the review.
“To comment on or interfere with the committee’s work might yield the perception of trying to interfere with the process or of trying to influence the outcome,” board chairwoman Dianne H. Smith said in a statement.
For some parents and state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, some of the books removed from the non-mandatory list — “Tyrell” by Coe Booth, “Dope Sick” by Walter Dean Myers and “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell, among them — contain pornographic scenes and inappropriate language.
Chase, who graduated from Monacan High School and who has three children enrolled in county schools, has represented 20 parents who have called for a review into how the division selects books for its summer reading list.
The division could label, rate or otherwise demarcate books for parents that may contain sensitive or controversial subject matters, she said.
“We’re not looking to legislate banning books,” Chase said.
She said, ultimately, the issue should be resolved on a local level by the School Board. “It’s basically looking at (and) questioning the process in place.”
In a subsequent statement, Chase wrote: “Americans don’t like to be told what to do. They want choices and the ability to make them. ... I’m really hoping the local school board will come up with a solution that empowers the reader to know what they are reading before they read it.”
But groups advocating free speech have charged that rating books is, in and of itself, censorship.
In a letter written on behalf of more than half a dozen organizations, the National Coalition Against Censorship quoted from a position statement from the National Council of Teachers of English stating that giving letter ratings or “red-flagging” is “a blatant form of censorship” that “reduces complex literary works to a few isolated elements.”
The letter went on to state, “Labels such as ‘sexually explicit’ or ‘violent’ emphasize decontextualized passages and do tremendous disservice to the works they accompany by detracting from students’ understanding and appreciation of the works as a whole.”
Sara Gilliam, president of the Chesterfield County Council PTA who is on the committee reviewing the books, said the panel is reading the books parents have challenged and will be meeting to discuss them. “The school system is definitely taking the process seriously,” she said in an email.