Charlotte Wood is the librarian for the lone high school in Madison County, Virginia. She has been the librarian ― and thus controlling access to library books ― since August.
But last month, the school board unilaterally removed 21 books from the high school’s library. The books removed include “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, and “It” by Stephen King.
The board claimed the books are sexually explicit and thus inappropriate for high school children. But simply mentioning sex or sexual assault, as many of the removed books do, is a far cry from pornography.
“Not one single parent has ever reached out to me about concerns about titles, or to request that their child be limited to certain books at checkout,” Wood told a school board meeting this week, where she showed up to voice her disapproval over the board actions.
The move has been unpopular with several students and parents, a number of whom spoke out against the book ban. But supporters of the school board believe they are fulfilling a greater mission.
“I’m not saying make Madison County a Christian school,” Pastor Russell Biber said when it was his turn to speak. “But let’s get back to the foundation of our education system, the fear of our lord God.”
The February board meeting was just one iteration of a scene that’s been happening around the country. Conservatives deem a book “inappropriate” for children, often citing disingenuous claims about sexually explicit content, and a tiny minority of parents band together to challenge the text. The message is implicit: Voices and narratives that center people who aren’t straight, white, Christian and cisgender should be censored.
“We’re a canary in a coal mine,” Devlyn D’Alfonzo, a resident and parent of two children in the school district, told HuffPost. “These tiny communities where these policies can pass without a question? We’re the testing ground.”
Madison County is heavily rural and Republican. With a population of approximately 14,000 people, there are only four schools in the district. The faux moral panic about sexual content in books in the small county is also being fueled by policy decisions at the state level.
Last year, the Virginia legislature approved a policy that would require the state Department of Education to make it mandatory that schools notify parents about “sexually explicit” materials being used in classrooms. The guidelines, which became official in July, require school officials to review materials for such content and then notify parents so they can opt their children out if they choose.
It’s unclear what makes a book “sexually explicit,” but in any case, the guidelines only apply to instructional materials in the classroom, not the library. The guidelines also clearly state that the policy does not allow for the removal or censoring of books in the school library.
But the Madison County School Board took the new policy one step further. Christopher Wingate, one of the newly elected members of the board, drafted a countywide policy that specifically deals with library books. Under the board’s more restrictive policy, parents and residents may request that the board remove a library book if it allegedly contains sexually explicit material. The board will then decide the book’s fate.
The policy was approved unanimously in December. Then, the board moved to remove nearly two dozen books, all of which supposedly contain sexual content that’s inappropriate for high school students.
What many parents and educators find frustrating is that parents already have the ability to prevent their children from reading books they don’t approve of, by informing the librarian. But the school board decided to create its own policy in order to remove books entirely. (The board did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.)
“The policy is vague enough and expansive enough that it allows the board to remove books that the board thinks is inappropriate,” D’Alfonzo said. “It gives them a lot of power.”
It’s also easy to make the removal of books sound agreeable to parents by framing it as a positive step meant to keep children safe.
“They will phrase it as ‘they’re just trying to protect kids and hold on to American values,’” D’Alfonzo said. “They’re using friendlier speech that sounds great ― if you don’t look too hard.”
If the fight over which books kids can read sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has championed racist and homophobic laws that target educators across the state. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill bans educators from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Stop WOKE Act prohibits teachers from talking about critical race theory ― a college-level concept that conservatives now invoke to describe essentially any instance where the existence of racism is acknowledged in a classroom.
Because of these policies, school districts in Florida have removed books, colleges have been forced to cut diversity initiatives, and teachers have been harassed for their sexual orientation.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who won in 2021 after running on a so-called “parental rights” platform, appears to be trying to follow in DeSantis’ footsteps.
The Virginia Department of Education’s guidelines that would ban transgender students from using the bathroom that best matches their gender identity remain in limbo, and Virginia’s law about “sexually explicit” books doesn’t go as far as Florida’s. But the situation in Madison County shows that there are places in Virginia where these right-wing ideas are very attractive.
“They’re gaining footholds in these little counties. They’re making these little inroads in smaller communities before they can make a move on the big scale,” D’Alfonzo said.
Last week, the Virginia EducatIon Association released a Black Lives Matter toolkit for teachers, including sample history lessons that educators could use during Black History Month. The Youngkin administration criticized the toolkit.
“The Administration will not support a teachers union’s attempts to prop up a politically driven curriculum toolkit which contains tenets that go beyond teaching history, lesson plans, and operates as a political manual for the next generation of Virginia’s students,” a Youngkin spokesperson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Virginia’s schools will continue to teach all history — the good and the bad.”
Where DeSantis may have derided the lesson plans as “woke” or “indoctrination,” the criticism from the Youngkin administration is milder, at least on the surface.
“It’s like the watered-down version of DeSantis, the slightly more palatable version,” D’Alfonzo said. “So the policies end up being more likely to pass ― but just as harmful.”