Group reviews library books for 'inappropriate' content

-A A +A

GHS Library Book Committee looks for a new way to select reading material for students, after receiving complaints from parents about content.

School officials, parents and students are joining together in a proactive effort to keep inappropriate reading materials out of the Galax High School library.
Schools Superintendent Bill Sturgill, GHS parent Lynn Funk and GHS honor student Maggie Turbyfill — three members of the newly-formed Galax Library Book Committee — explained in a group meeting on Tuesday that their efforts were not to shield students from difficult topics, but to offer the student body books that deal with these topics the right way.

“We know the tough topics [teenagers face] — sexuality, bullying, drugs, suicide — those are all tough topics,” said Sturgill. School officials and the community have expressed their concern about how some of the books that are marketed primarily to high school age students address these topics.
Instead of eliminating books that address these topics entirely, the committee wants to find books that address them in a helpful manner, rather than negatively influencing the reader.
“If we have a student that is contemplating suicide, I want a book on our shelves that might save the life of that student,” Sturgill said.
After several parents contacted the high school last year with concerns about library books that contained inappropriate content — such as explicit sex scenes, profanity and substance abuse — Sturgill and other members of the faculty and school board discussed the need for a book committee.
“We’re not talking about looking at books that are already on our shelves, so much as creating a matrix to guide us in making selections on the front end before the books even reach our shelves,” Sturgill said.
He added that the high school library receives an order of roughly 800 books per year. “Ninety-five percent of those are fine, but the librarian is just one person and she can’t catch them all. We have no concerns with [her work], we are just trying to be an advocate to help her.”
After some parent meetings, the committee formed as a small group of around six or seven members that will accept suggestions and help from their community.
“We have a few parents, administrators, the librarian, and a student, so we have a good starting point,” Sturgill said.
Turbyfill is an honor student in her junior year of high school. She was selected by the committee to give a student’s perspective of what is offered at the library.
When asked about her experience using the library, she confirmed that the selections there are very different than the “teen” marketed novels she sometimes sees outside of school. “Once in [a bookstore] I saw a book where even the title had a cuss word. I know they wouldn’t have something like that in the library,” she said.
Funk also noted that, thanks to technological advances, virtually anyone can publish a book. “When you have the opportunity to write without the book being scrubbed through a publishing company, unfortunately some of the best intentions end up in people making money, but not putting what is best in front of minors,” she said.
Books with questionable content, like what Turbyfill noticed in the bookstore, have grown more common as society changes to fit a new standard. However, what works for some people in a changing society doesn’t necessarily work for others.
“Public education has always had a responsibility to keep in mind the value of what we are sharing with students. As our society changes, that role may become even more important in offering that guidance,” Sturgill said.
The school system has already succeeded in filtering out inappropriate content through other outlets, such as its wireless internet access, and sectioning off areas of the library from middle school students who share the space with high school students. “My daughter is in the sixth grade, and if she tried to check out one of the ‘teen’ books, it would be coded and she wouldn’t be able to check out that book,” Sturgill said.
Sturgill hopes that the efforts of the committee will result in a matrix that will guide them in selecting books with the content they want to offer their students. “We want to create something that’s lasting... and something that any division could repeat for themselves,” he told The Gazette.
“But this is a community effort. This is their children coming through this school, so we are looking for ideas from them,” Funk added.
One concern that is always present is the fact that no committee can please everyone, as all parents are going to have different moral standards that they teach their children. One book may be perfectly suited for one child, but entirely inappropriate for another.
“This is why we want to lobby for parental involvement,” Sturgill said. “I think it’s my responsibility to monitor what my child is reading. As a public school, we have to find the balance... which is the most difficult part. The extremes are easy, but where do you draw the line for all those books in the middle?”
That being said, the committee has agreed that it is important to take enough time to find where that line exists. “This could take a lot of time... maybe longer than a year,” Sturgill said.
Funk said that she had spoken with representatives of the Galax Public Library, and hopes that the committee could partner with them in the future. “There’s a lot of scrubbing that goes on in the local library, as well. We’ve talked to them several times, and they have a good system in place.”
Funk also wants members of the community to voice their own ideas about filtering the library’s contents in the future. She gave an example of one idea they have already explored.
“We know of one online resource called CommonSenseMedia.org, that does a good job at rating books, movies, etc. However, many times there are only one or two reviews of a particular book,” she said.
The members all shared the same confidence that the committee will be successful in finding a common ground for the student body. “This is really all about the kids. It is our responsibility to put a lot of effort in making certain we do what is right for the students in Galax. I think we are doing a good thing,” Sturgill said.
The committee will hold its third meeting on Dec. 9. “We do view it as a closed meeting, but if anyone has an interest in attending, they can call the school board office,” said Sturgill.

For more information about meetings or to offer ideas pertaining to the new library matrix, contact the Galax School Board Office at (276) 236-2911.

Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Library Books
The American Library Association compiles a list of the most frequently challenged books in school and public libraries each year, and even celebrates them with an annual “Banned Books Week” in September.
The ALA says that offensive language, sexually explicit material and books that are unsuited to age group are the top reasons cited for challenging books in schools and libraries. At least 464 complaints to remove books were filed in 2012.
Some interesting facts from the ALA:
• An estimated 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982.
• The “Harry Potter” series was ranked as the American Library Associations’s most frequently challenged book for four consecutive years.
• Five books by Judy Blume are on the list of 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990 to 1999.
• 1,577 challenges cited “sexually explicit” material from 2000 to 2009.
• 1,291 challenges cited “offensive content” from 2000 to 2009.
According to the ALA, the most frequently challenged books of 2012, and the reasons for the complaints, were:

1. Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” series (offensive language, unsuited to age group).

2. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (explicit sexual references, racism, religious irreverence and strong language). It is the story of a Native American youth attending an all-white school.

3. “Thirteen Reasons Why” (references to suicide, drugs, alcohol and smoking; sexually explicit material; unsuited to the age group).

4. “Fifty Shades of Grey” (offensive language and sexually explicit material).

5. “And Tango Makes Three” (unsuited for age group). The book tells the true story of two male penguins who hatched an egg together.

6. “The Kite Runner” (depicts rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language).

7. “Looking for Alaska” (inappropriate language).

8. “Scary Stories” (violence, unsuited for age group).

9. “The Glass Castle” (explicit language, references to child molestation, adolescent sexual exploits and violence.)

10. “Beloved” (sexually explicit and violent content). Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is been on the list many times.