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'No one person is making the decision': Rockwood has committee to review challenged books

Every school has its own process to review and examine challenged books and the Rockwood School District has a committee dedicated to this.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — A new report from the American Library Association shows attempts to ban books in the U.S. surged last year to the highest level.

It's the most the organization has seen since it began tracking book challenges 20 years ago. 

They say most target Black or LGBTQ authors or subjects.

Every school has its own process to review and examine challenged books and the Rockwood School District has a committee dedicated to this. 

It's called the challenge committee.

Shelley Willott is the Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Support Services.

She's been in education for 28 years and she's been a high school English teacher for 14 years. She's also the moderator for the committee. 

"No one person is making the decision to add a book or pull a book," Willott said.

The committee includes librarians, teachers, administrators, and parents. 

They make the decision if books stay or go.

The committee

Willott said with every challenge, the group can change, but some members remain consistent.

At times, it can be up to 14 people. 

"We start by asking members of our PTO president's forum if they are willing to serve on the committee as the parent. If I don't get any volunteers, from there, then we go to the curriculum committees and ask those parents to see if they are interested in serving, so that does vary," Willott explains.

Scheduling can also be tough.

Pre-pandemic times, teachers could be a part of the meetings during school hours with a substitute filling in. However, with a substitute shortage, teachers have to attend after school.

The process

Once a challenger brings forward a concern, it'll go to the teacher or librarian.

If it's not resolved there, then they bring it forward to the building principal. If that's not met, then the school principal offers the form to make the formal challenge. 

Then, it'll head to the committee.

The challenger expresses their concerns to the group.

That's when the group goes over the library policy and reviews why the book was chosen.

They've also added a new element.

"We look at statistics regarding how often that book was checked out," Willott said. "That was something that we recently added that the committees wanted to see."

From there, they review.

"We actually get into the conversation about the material, so the committee looks at the value of the material, then we go back and express the concerns or review the concerns one more time. Then I ask the committee if someone would like to make a recommendation of what they would like to do with the material," Willott said. 

Following that, a vote takes place and consensus wins.

"We tried to make sure that there are multiple voices in there. That's the whole point of the policy and the regulation is that it involves the community in these choices," Willott said. 

Once that's done, they'll present their decision to the board of education.

On Thursday night, the books "Lawn Boy", "Living Dead Girl", and "It Feels Good to be Yourself" will be presented.

They're going to tell the board these books are OK to stay.

They did provide some guidelines with it.

For "It Feels Good to be Yourself", the book will have a flag on it alerting the librarian to follow up with the teacher, counselor or parent to ensure a trusted adult is aware that the child may have questions about the book. 

"Lawn Boy" and "Living Dead Girl" will remain. However, parents may request for their child to not gain access to the book.

The board then takes it as is, unless the challenger appeals the decision and the board determines what's next.

"Books have always been challenged that has not changed, we have seen more this year than we haven't previously," Willott said. 

This falls in line with the most recent findings from the American Library Association.

Claudia Cook, President of the Missouri Library Association, said books are meant to expand minds.

"It makes so sad there are so many books challenges because studies show reading increase empathy. People need to see themselves in literature, books are great tools to address complex issues," Cook said. 

She also said Rockwood's process to examine books is a good approach.

"I think they are handling that well, they are taking it seriously," Cook said.

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