Hamilton County school board's book review committee members make recommendations

Mar. 15—Ahead of making their collective recommendations for policy changes related to reading materials in Hamilton County schools, members of the board of education's community book review committee submitted their individual recommendations by email to the board's administrative assistant.

Committee members were asked to make recommendations for potential changes to school board policies for the selection of instructional materials other than textbooks and for handling complaints about them. Emotions ran high in some of the responses.

"I am most disturbed by the gross explicit sexual content that is included in some of these titles, and the use of coarse language ad nauseam in others," wrote Taylor Hartgrove, who represents the East Brainerd and East Ridge area. "I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and as such, I hold to a biblical worldview, filtering all things through that lens. There is significant judgment for those who intentionally lead children astray, for those who seek to poison the mind of a child. I cannot take part in allowing children's minds to be warped by such literature."

Autumn Witt Boyd — representing North Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain and Lookout Valley — suggested an addition to the policy that would allow parents and guardians to make a written request to their child's teacher or school librarian about any particular book title or subject matter they do not wish their child to read about in optional reading material.

The requests would be noted in school software, which would alert the teacher or librarian before a child accesses any such optional reading material, and schools would publicize the availability of the notification system at registration or through other communications methods used with parents and guardians, she added.

Loretta Lowe, representing Ooltewah and Harrison, wrote that the school district's library handbook is a "liberal tool" that needs revision. She wrote that the reconsideration process for parents who submit complaints is long and difficult and also needs revision.

"Whoever places books inside schools should be documented so they can be held accountable if they place obscene material in the hands of children," Lowe wrote.

Wayne McBrayer, also representing Ooltewah and Harrison, said new and existing books in schools should be reviewed for obscenity and that board policy should clearly define obscenity.

"Any books that are obscene should have a rating system and a safeguard process installed" to ensure those books are only accessible to children of an appropriate age to view the materials, he wrote.

McBrayer wrote that school librarians should consult with the principal on all books that are deemed obscene, and they should also record their names in the system alongside books with obscene content that they add to the school's collection.

"This will provide a level of accountability and understanding of the subjectivity discretion," McBrayer wrote.

"We have left decisions about school library to the 'professionals,'" McBrayer wrote. "Those same professionals publicly state they want no boundaries in place for what students can access — including age. They want 'free and open access to information' — which would include providing adult material to inappropriate age groups. The board should provide clear standards for healthy and safe material for students."

Lowe's email included a similarly worded statement.

"We have left decisions about school library materials to the 'professionals,'" Lowe wrote. "Those same professionals publicly state they want no boundaries in place for what students can access — including age. They want 'free and open access to information' — which would include providing adult material to elementary students. The board must provide clear standards for healthy and safe material for students."

Nancy Patty, representing Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek, recommended that all school reading material be evaluated to ensure alignment with the district's student code of conduct.

"If it fully aligns, there isn't a need for further review," she wrote. "However, if it does not align with the student code of conduct, the material must go through additional review to ensure it is in compliance under the federal law governing obscene materials and [to] determine whether said material is suitable for and consistent with the educational mission of the school."

Several committee members recommended that the policies remain unchanged.

"It seems to me that the HCS [Hamilton County Schools] policies, as they relate to books and instructional materials, are working as they are, because they allow any family to express that they don't want their child to read or have access to a particular book, and then be provided with alternative reading materials that still connect to instructional standards," wrote James McKissic, representing Brainerd and Tyner. "I think there is an opportunity to educate more parents about the policies, maybe at registration or even during literacy nights, open houses, etc."

Kathy Lennon, representing Red Bank and Signal Mountain, recommended the committee's recommendations be disregarded by the school board. She wrote that the committee never should have been formed, as policy changes can only be made by the school board or administration.

Said Paula Wilson, representing downtown Chattanooga, "I feel the current policy has been followed as it is written. My advice to the board is to wait to see what the state mandates before a lot of hard work must be reworked and hard feelings become intractable."

Pam Skipper, representing the Hixson area, said she did not think parents were being informed as required about "disturbing" books.

"I DO NOT agree with this vile books in a PUBLIC school system," she wrote. "My final comment is if those parents want to let their kids read this trash, then do it at home. Home can and should provide a 'teachable' safe and secure place to discuss those books."

The committee will make its recommendations to the school board at the board's next meeting, Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

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