MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education is likely to update its library and challenge review policies after district citizens voiced concerns about books in the district’s libraries.

The board was first alerted to library concerns at April’s regular meeting.

The group asking for changes in the school library, known as The Knox County Citizens of School Accountability, was at the July 26 meeting to “keep the debate open about what’s appropriate and what we feels inappropriate for our children, whose brains are still in the process of forming,” local pastor Roger Tickle said.

“We’re here because we believe that there needs to be accountability in our schools,” Tickle said. “There needs to be accountability in our libraries, in our classrooms, and in the Board of Education.”

Tickle voiced his concerns about books having “overt sexual material” and the profound effects it may have on young minds.

Others voiced their frustration over not hearing back from the board or Superintendent Bill Seder since their meeting in June, when five books were challenged, though only four were located in the Mount Vernon Middle School library, according to Seder.

The books being reviewed are:

  • Lord of the Shadows
  • City of Heavenly Fire
  • City of Lost Souls
  • Fighting Words

“We weren’t trying to skirt this issue,” Seder said. “We want to step toward it and address it.”

Seder suggested the board needs to reexamine how it selects books and what categories are in place when considering admissions.

Finding the right rating system

The district’s library selection process has remained the same since Seder joined the district 10 years ago, he said.

“I want to know where we’re looking for books and what references we’re considering,” he said.

Seder points to the American Library Association, which lists criteria books should meet for students, such as being appropriate for the subject area, age, emotional development, ability level, learning style, and social, emotional, and intellectual development of students.

“If we don’t take that into account when we’re selecting books, we’re probably not doing the best job we can,” Seder said. “I’m not saying that we haven’t done that, but it hasn’t been put out there in some sort of written format.”

The American Library Association also notes that books should promote diversity by including materials from authors and illustrators of all cultures.

Seder then researched different book rating systems such as Common Sense Media and Book Looks, which rate different aspects of materials or themes a book can have, including diverse representation, violence, sex, and educational value.

“I think those are ways that we can carefully evaluate a book and determine whether it needs to be in our collection or maybe it’s just in the wrong place,” Seder said. “I don’t have any silver bullet here other than to say I’m looking for things that can kind of help us as we go on down the road.

“I think, in the meantime, until we really come up with that set of criteria, we’ve talked about just holding off on any new selection of texts or books until we really figure this out a little bit more.”

The Challenge Process

Currently, a “Review Committee” is assembled when someone objects to a book or curriculum material that has already been purchased by the district.

A review committee would include a cross-section of parents, teachers, administrators, librarians, and any others who could bring knowledge and awareness to the process, Board of Education President Dr. Margie Bennett said via email.

The committee would meet when a book or curriculum concern has been initiated through a review process outlined in board policy #9130.

At July’s meeting, Seder mentioned that the committee-making process isn’t easy, citing the difficulty of finding willing participants who will be on the committee.

At the committee’s second meeting, members who read the book in its entirety can vote if the book should be removed.

“What I’d like the board to consider is an additional step in here because I think just in my short time here in July looking at some of these things, it didn’t take long for me to pull a book, get a sense of what the complaint was, to get in and look at the review sites, to see the age appropriateness of things, and formulate my own opinion,” Seder said.

“Now that’s not for me to do relative to these books right now, but that was done in relatively short order.

“What I’d love to see is upon receipt of the information from the complainant, the principal shall meet with the right librarian or reading specialist to review the complaint. The principal will report findings or action to the complaint, and they will go through what we’ll call a preliminary review.”

It would simplify the challenge process, Seder said, whether a book shouldn’t be in the middle school due to its appropriateness at an older level or it shouldn’t be in the district’s libraries entirely.

If the complainant disagrees with the quick review, then it would go through the superintendent’s office, Seder said, where a committee would be formed.

The four challenged books have been pulled from circulation, Seder said.

The library ‘rabbit hole’

The citizens’ association sent Seder a list of books listed in the machine readable cataloging record (MARC) system of Info Ohio as grade level appropriate for 9-12 grade levels.

“There are suggested audiences that can come from many sources,” Seder said. “When your librarian purchases a book for your library, she likely does it through an agency with whom she has a contract or Junior Library Guild. And that agency provides additional services like that MARC record system.”

Whenever a student checks out a book from the school library, a parent or guardian receives an email alerting them to what book their student checked out, Seder said, which was a policy implemented several years ago.

“Parents have to take some ownership and have conversations about the book,” Seder said.

Seder mentioned that his “rabbit hole” library research isn’t complete yet, with the district’s own rating system not set in stone.

The board gave the go-ahead for Seder to change the review and challenge language in the district’s library policies, though Seder didn’t have a timeline for when the recommendation would come to the board for a vote.

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I am a Report For America corps member at Knox Pages. I report on public education in the county as well as workforce development. I first landed at Knox Pages in June 2022.