The Spotsylvania School Board’s vote on Monday to initiate the removal of “sexually explicit” books from its libraries was unconstitutional, according to its attorney.
“We received a legal brief from our School Board attorney that basically said what we did was unconstitutional,” Battlefield District representative Baron Braswell said Friday.
Braswell said he intends to put forward a motion to rescind the vote at the special called meeting Monday.
“I take our attorney’s word on it and I don’t want to do unconstitutional things,” he said.
The venue for Monday’s special meeting of the Spotsylvania School Board has been changed to the Chancellor High School auditorium to accommodate the large number of community members who are expected to turn out in response to the board’s vote last week.
In addition to directing staff to begin pulling “sexually explicit” material, the board asked for a report on how many books have been received and on the process by which books are approved for inclusion in library collections.
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The School Board’s 6–0 vote last week to proceed with the removal of books—and the mention by two board members of a desire to see the books burn—has made national news headlines.
In response, students and community members have organized petitions and protests against the decision.
On Friday, Courtland district representative Rabih Abuismail said his comment that he’d like to see books like “33 Snowfish”—a book by playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp about homeless teens attempting to escape from sexual abuse and drug addiction—thrown on a fire was “said out of frustration.”
“I should not have said it,” he said. “I want to be forthcoming with the notion that I misspoke. Anybody I offended, I want them to know it was unintentional.”
Abuismail, who at 24 is one of the youngest School Board members ever elected in Virginia, said his concerns about books like “33 Snowfish” and “Call Me By Your Name”—the second book that the parent of a Riverbend High School mentioned by name in a complaint about books in the library—do not come from the fact that they depict LGBTQ characters, but that their subject matter includes “pedophilia.”
“We shouldn’t remove the books because they have a gay character,” he said. “But any books that have pornographic material or pedophilia in them do not belong in the school system.”
Abuismail said it should be “very clear” what books are too sexually explicit to be in school libraries. He said there is a place for that material in public libraries.
He said he is aware that children in Spotsylvania schools may have experienced some of the same trauma described in “33 Snowfish,” but that he believes funding counselors and resource officers to help these children is a better way for public schools to respond.
“I feel like counselors in our schools need to have the resources to help [students] have conversations with their parents, help the parents to be there,” Abuismail said. “I don’t believe fictional books do it.”
Livingston District representative Kirk Twigg, who said last week that he wants to see copies of removed books “before we burn them,” did not respond to a request from The Free Lance–Star for further comment.
Riverby Books, a used bookstore in downtown Fredericksburg, posted on its Facebook page on Wednesday that it will continue to stock “any and all books banned by local schools ... now and forever” and will loan a copy of a banned book to students for free.
“I think its important that when somebody stands up and says that books should be banned, an equal and greater number of people need to say, ‘Oh, no, they shouldn’t,’ ” Riverby Books owner Paul Cymrot said Thursday.
“The folks who are talking about banning books—and there have always been people talking about this—may have some interesting questions that they’re asking, but banning books is not the answer to any question at all.”
Cymrot said he does struggle as a bookstore owner over decisions about whether or not to stock some books, such as those dealing with Nazi history, but “at the end of the day, we’ve always kind of trusted that it’s not access to information that makes people make bad decisions—it’s lack of access to information.”
Local students are also speaking up to say they do not want books to be removed from their school libraries.
Autumn Rhea, a student at Riverbend High School, started a Change.org petition to reverse the School Board’s decision.
“The Spotsylvania County school board has voted to remove any content containing, mentioning, or about ‘sexually related content’ and this has now included violence-related content as well,” Rhea wrote in the petition narrative. “This criteria might take half or more of all our books off shelves in our libraries. This includes classics like Romeo and Juliet, No Exit, mythology texts, and even the famous author Margaret Atwood. Please do not allow our education to be censored and banned.”
As of Friday afternoon, the petition had 3,096 signatures.
Another Riverbend student, Liam Thompson, is organizing a protest against the removal of books from the library at the school on Nov. 17.
Students outside of Spotsylvania are also speaking out about against censorship.
Salome Cook, a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, circulated a petition in opposition to the Spotsylvania board’s decision and is organizing students to protest the issue.
“We’re talking about young adults here, not children,” she said. “If parents want to control what their children read, they can do that at home, but not for entire communities.”
She said she fears that a purge of books deemed “sexually explicit” could result in “thousands” of books being removed from the school library.
Cook said she spoke to the Stafford County Board of Supervisors in September to oppose their resolution condemning critical race theory and withholding funding from schools if it is tied to the theory.
She said she sees the two issues as being on “a continuum.”
“It’s the same sort of mindset—control over what students are learning,” Cook said.
A protest is being planned at Chancellor High School prior to the School Board meeting Monday.
There is time for public comments during the meeting.