Wicomico board’s proposed book policy maintains integrity


Concerns have been raised recently by Wicomico County Board of Education members about the process for initial selection and reconsideration of media resources, in particular books.

The current procedure for book selection (addressed in the Wicomico County Board of Education “Selection and Review of Curriculum, Instructional Materials, and Media Materials Procedure” — INS-SCH-PR-016) follows best practices among library/media specialists across the country (i.e., the use of scholarly criteria, reviewing multiple scholarly reviews, evaluations of awards) and includes multiple stages of review by experts in media resources.

Similarly, the process for reconsideration can start with a request by a parent/guardian and relies on the recommendation by a standing committee, consisting of media specialists, teachers, administrators and a student, following a thorough review of the book in question.

A working session for the Board of Education was held on February 20 to review the policies and procedures associated with media material selection and possible reconsideration because several members of the boar felt that the current policies and procedures were inadequate.

During this session, one board member asked, “After all this review that you just mentioned, how did some of these books get into our system that people find so objectionable? Do you have different standards than what, say, some parents or a faith-based minister would have? Where is the disconnect?”

The parents and faith-based minister referred to had made comments during the Open Comment section of the Jan. 18 board meeting, objecting to two books based on reasons such as, “This type of material is obviously something that has an ideology to it” and “In my personal opinion, it’s definitely immoral.”

These comments are personal opinions/beliefs, to which these individuals are entitled. However, personal opinions/beliefs are not the standard used for book selection or reconsideration.

The decision to ban a book is a serious one and is governed by the First Amendment and rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect those rights. Removal of a book can be done only on the basis of valid educational reasons, which excludes personal opinions or to suppress a particular ideology (Island Trees v. Pico, 1982), or because the content is obscene. And rather than relying on individuals’ opinions/beliefs about what is obscene, Maryland laws (Md. Code CR 11-203) and the three-pronged Miller test established by the U.S. Supreme Court (Miller v. California, 1973) define obscenity.

The current Board of Education Procedures adhere to these rulings by stipulating that personal opinions/beliefs cannot be a factor in resource selection and reconsideration. In particular, board procedures state that media materials should provide a “global perspective in order to promote diversity, equity, and belonging” (INS-SCH-PR-016 III.D.1) and “a broad background of information, including opposing sides of controversial issues to foster critical thinking in students” (INS-SCH-PR-016 III.D.3).

In the working session, the board revised the current policies and procedures to improve clarity without making substantive changes (pending approval on March 12).

There was complete agreement that anyone can voice concerns during the Open Comments at monthly board meetings and parents/guardians will continue to have the right to “remove” a book for their student.

There was disagreement about who should be able to request the reconsideration of a book. Three board members wanted to expand it from parents/guardians to all citizens of the county whether they have a student in Wicomico County schools or not. As noted by other members during the discussion, doing this would diminish the rights of parents/guardians in this process. Also noted that expanding beyond parents/guardians could allow others with possible agendas to overwhelm the process.

The “new” policies and procedures, if approved on March 12, will clarify the processes involved in book selection and reconsideration while maintaining the integrity of that process. I hope the board approves these policies and procedures to continue to protect our students’ rights.

Karen Papke-Shields is a Wicomico County resident and the parent to two former students in the Wicomico County Public Schools system.

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