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Skipping any formal review process, Harrisonburg County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards pulled a book from the shelves of high school libraries after a complaint was filed by two parents.

The debate over book censorship in schools has reemerged recently among parents, teachers and politicians in multiple school districts across the country. Some parents believe their children are put at risk due to hot-button topics covered in some books that are available in school libraries. These books often contain content relating to gender, race and other timely issues deemed as controversial within the U.S. 

Five Virginia counties have recently tried enacting book bans within their school systems: Spotsylvania, Harrisonburg, Virginia Beach, Henrico and Fairfax. The Spotsylvania County School Board recently attempted to ban books in schools containing “sexually explicit content,” according to The Free Lance-Star, a newspaper based in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

The board also voted to remove a young adult novel called “33 Snowfish” that GoodReads summarizes as “three young people with deeply troubled pasts and bleak futures … as they struggle to find new life for themselves.” This novel is only found in Spotsylvania County Public School ‘s (SCPS) high school libraries, not lower-level schools, where it’s only obtainable by young adults who should be able to handle its contents.

The motion to remove the book passed unanimously 6-0, per The Free Lance-Star, but was soon met with backlash from students and community members who adamantly wanted to keep the books in the library. National news outlets and organizations added to the pressure of the school board to switch its decision.

The ACLU of Virginia condemned the school board’s attempt to ban the books in a tweet later that week.

“Freedom of expression is our right. The government shouldn’t make misguided attempts to suppress that right by banning books.”

Spotsylvania’s decision was soon rescinded after this criticism. 

With parents’ recent move to convince the school board to ban these books, it’s important that schools don’t listen to the complaints from a minority of vocal parents in order to preserve an open space where students freely engage with the material of their choosing regardless of the book’s content. It’s within the bounds of the First Amendment that books be protected in school systems from unfair bannings as a means that protects freedom of speech. This should allow for all books chosen by the library to stay on the shelves, though some feel the need to disregard the Amendment’s rule.

Why do these select few school boards and parents feel the need to limit the ability of choice in education and creative exploration? 

Some may feel the need to limit teenagers’ exposure to what they deem are sensitive topics. A majority of the books banned by these school boards discuss gender, race and LGBTQ rights. What makes them such sensitive topics to these parents? The effort comes from a right-wing push to limit students’ exposure to these issues. 

Resistance by these communities has led to responses in states with conservative strongholds like Texas, North Dakota, Missouri and South Carolina. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tx.) called for removal of these “obscene” books and has done away with them. Books like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eyes” were taken off shelves of school libraries in Northern Kansas City Schools and Missouri and deemed inappropriate by those unwilling to accept some of their honest depictions of American life. They have since returned to the shelves of their respective libraries. 

Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) decided it wants to mirror Spotsylvania. HCPS faced backlash in November from two parents for the inclusion of “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in the Harrisonburg High School’s library, per the Daily News-Record (DN-R). Without waiting for the review process decision from the board, Michael Richards, HCPS superintendent, pulled the book from Harrisonburg High School’s shelves to combat the criticism. The DN-R notes that Richards only received one complaint about another book prior to this incident. Richards has since created a committee to review the material of the removed book.

This type of complaint from only two parents shouldn’t warrant a full investigation and the removal of a book from a school library.  

Book bannings within public schools aren’t new. Numerous attempts were made in the past for similar reasons that SCPS, HCPS and other districts have chosen to follow. It’s hard to understand why parents would want a book banned for all when they could simply tell their own child not to read it. Why limit the option for others? 

These efforts by furious parents and superintendents should remind Americans of the First Amendment’s importance and its perpetuation of free expression and choice of consumable content. Students should be able to read any book they want without restriction, especially in an environment that’s supposed to foster creativity and discovery.

With the removal of books regarding timely discussions about race, gender and sexuality, students aren’t free to learn from their messages and themes about identity and acceptance. They aren’t able to become exposed to the voices of those who are already underrepresented. 

They aren’t able to have a choice. 

Luke Pineda is a junior political science major. Contact Luke at pinedalm@dukes.jmu.edu.