Dougherty School System 'staying ahead' on reviewing potentially objectionable material

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Sep. 10—ALBANY — "Soon libraries and bookshops were being raided, often in rapid succession, by agents of the Criminal Police, the Gestapo, the Interior Ministry, the courts, local authorities and the Supreme Censorship Authority for Dirty and Trashy Literature, based in Leipzig.

"By December 1933 over a thousand titles had been banned by these various institutions. Four thousand one hundred different printed works were banned by a total of 40 different censorship bodies in 1934 alone."

Thus Richard J. Evans outlines the tightening of censorship of reading materials in the second of his Nazi trilogy, "The Third Reich in Power."

In recent months there has been a similar phenomenon in this country; gun-toting, irate citizens showing up at library board meetings in Idaho, state legislators demanding to know if books from lists are in school libraries.

In one case two state legislators in Virginia tried to have a title removed from a commercial book chain's shelves because they objected to its content. A judge rejected their claims and the book stayed in stock.

In Boundary County, Idaho, the librarian was approached initially by a resident who demanded to know if there were any titles from a list of roughly 400 books, mainly those with gender-related and sexual content as well as books deemed racially "divisive."

Although none of the works were in fact in the Idaho library, the librarian responded that she would purchase those requested by patrons. The situation escalated to angry confrontations at board meetings, reported death threats, and bullet-riddled books being left in after-hours repositories.

School and public libraries are being hit with charges of "grooming" children for sexual abuse for lending books that have been read for generations as well as newer works.

The list of roughly 400 works and other lists have been circulating online and used by censorious citizens and legislators bent on a crusade to remove books they also consider to be "dirty and trashy literature."

So far there has been no complaints on book contents at either the Dougherty County Library System or Dougherty County School System.

The public library declined to comment further than the statement about having had no complaints, county Public Information Officer Wendy Howell told The Herald.

At the school system, the system has kept abreast of recent developments in legislation and also used some of those lists to guide library and course content, Cheryl Smith, the associate superintendent for academic services and chief academic officer for the district, said.

They have had none of the experiences like Tennessee teachers forced to work over the weekend before school began to remove fiction and non-fiction works in classrooms, to be held away from students until they are approved or deemed inappropriate.

"Actually, no, for us, we've not had any complaints or concerns from parents," Smith said. "I attribute that to every year we do reviews. We make sure school system books are aligned to state standards. That includes instructional materials, our media center, textbooks, online material CDs, pretty much everything we utilize."

School system content coordinators and media specialists also play a role. A review committee consisting of educators, administrators, parents and community members also is in place.

Books are judged on age-appropriateness, such that a book deemed too mature for an elementary school student may be available to older students for whom it is deemed appropriate.

"There are so many lists out there," Smith said. "Some are very lengthy, so we try to look at common books. There's so many to go through every list.

"If anything pops up we would refer it to the committee. We would go through the material, whether it is an ebook, book or instructional material. One book we went through page-by-page to decide whether we should remove it."

In her 17 years in the system, Smith said, a review system has been in place. Now schools are incorporating newer legislation, such as the 2022 "Parents' Bill of Rights" that guarantees parents access to student curriculum used in classrooms.

"We try to be proactive about it so it never becomes an issue for parents," Smith said. "We try to stay ahead. Prior to the pandemic, we were putting our instructional materials online for parents."

Pressed to name a library book that had been judged inappropriate for some students, she came up with "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson.

That novel, published in 1999, is the story of a high school freshman who is raped at a party and calls police, who break up the party.

"We did not believe it was age-appropriate for elementary school students," Smith said. "Again, we look at age-appropriate, developmentally sound and socially appropriate material."

Schools also must consider the implications of the "Harmful to Minors" statute also passed this year. That law covers material that includes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse when it "takes as a whole, predominantly appeals to the prurient, shameful or morbid interest of minors" and is deemed offensive to prevailing standards for adults and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

The law gives schools seven days to respond to complaints from parents about material available to students.

"Consideration of the new 'Harmful to Minors' law as well as divisive content has been added to (reviews) to make sure we are compliant," Smith said. The latter refers to the law, also passed in 2022, that backers say is meant to prohibit "divisive" concepts in teaching about race.