The gloves are off for Neal Goldberg. After dozens of school library books were removed from the shelves this fall, the Carroll County parent found a creative way to test the system: He challenged the Bible.
The Bible, Goldberg reasoned, contained sexual content just like many of the books flagged for review by members of the conservative group Moms for Liberty. Goldberg wondered if his book challenge would be handled the same way.
It wasn’t. Unlike the 60 other challenged books, the Bible stayed on the shelves “due to constitutional considerations,” a school system employee told Goldberg.
Now, Goldberg is keeping a watchful eye on the school board as it considers a change to the way library and textbooks are selected. On Jan. 10, the board will define the kind of “sexually explicit content” not allowed in instructional materials.
“I’m 48 years old. I grew up when Dungeons and Dragons was going to make you worship the devil,” Goldberg recalled. “And most of my generation is fine. Explain to me why every few decades, we start to see this pushback to wanting to ban things.”
Goldberg has seen how right-leaning parent groups have had an influence on the school board since the pandemic. When they were upset the schools were closed while COVID-19 spread, Carroll was one of the first districts in the state to let students return. When parents were unhappy kids had to wear masks, board members called on the state to lift mask-wearing.
And when parents thought critical race theory (which is not taught in K-12 schools) was threatening to kids, the board enacted a policy to limit political conversations in classrooms. He doesn’t want the same thing to happen with the books.
The policy change being put to a vote is a direct response to the outcry from Carroll County’s chapter of Moms for Liberty, a group that the Southern Poverty Law Center says “opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum.” The Carroll chapter, however, has said sexual content is the chief problem with the dozens of titles members submitted for review. They flooded the system with so many challenges this summer and fall that Superintendent Cynthia McCabe pulled the books out of school libraries until a committee could review them.
For a while, Carroll’s school board hadn’t taken any action on the topic, just listened to angry parents, and some students, during school board meetings who argued for either keeping or getting rid of the books. On Oct. 11, board member Steve Whisler suggested, and the rest of the board agreed, that school system staff tighten the book selection policy and suggest a definition for “sexually explicit content.” He said the alterations would help educators understand if a book is appropriate for students.
Marsha Herbert, the board president, did not respond to an interview request.
“Instructional materials, including supplemental materials, shall not contain sexually explicit content,” the proposed policy change states. “Sexually explicit content is defined as unambiguously describing, depicting, showing, or writing about sex or sex acts in a detailed or graphic manner.”
It would apply to instructional materials, like textbooks, and supplemental materials, like library books, but not materials related to the health curriculum. Members of the public can now give their opinions on the policy.
“If we had an educator or staff member say these very words that are on some of these pages to a student, that educator or that staff member probably be dismissed or terminated,” said Whisler, speaking for himself and not the board, in an interview.
Jessica Garland, vice president of Carroll’s Moms for Liberty chapter, said their mission is pretty much accomplished.
“We forced the school system to look at their policy,” she said. “We’re hoping that the policy can eliminate that this happens in the future.”
Dozens of books are still in purgatory
Anyone who wants a book removed from a Carroll County school has to fill out a form. A 12-person committee decides on whether the book should be removed, but the challenger can appeal the decision to the superintendent and then the school board.
So far, the committee has made a decision on 23 books that were mostly in high schools. Nine of those decisions were to remove the books and 15 were to retain (those are back on the shelves). One of the books, “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, was removed from middle schools and kept in high schools.
Thirty-seven books are still awaiting review, and most of them have been off school library shelves for months.
Parents appealed to the superintendent 11 times, disagreeing with the committee’s decision to keep the books. McCabe agreed to retain four books. In one case, she reversed the committee’s decision and had “Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU” by Corey Silverberg and Fiona Smyth permanently removed from West Middle School, and she agreed that “Slaughterhouse-Five” should only be available in high schools. The rest required high school students to have parent permission before checking out a book.
The Bible was never removed from the shelves “due to constitutional considerations from our legal counsel,” Bruce Lesh, supervisor of elementary social studies, wrote in an email to Goldberg reviewed by The Banner.
Goldberg had challenged the Bible for ”explicit sex scenes, as well as incest, and bestiality and that is inappropriate for minors,” he wrote on a form.
Detailing an entire sexual scene in a library novel is worse than simply mentioning sex the way the Bible does, Whisler said.
Although he said many of the challenged books are inappropriate and should be removed, he isn’t happy with how many books are in the queue. It’s distracting from academic goals, he said, and time-consuming for committee members who can only evaluate five books a month. The policy change is meant to “fast track” the evaluation process.
“I’ve jokingly said they’re spending more time reading dirty books than they are focusing on educating kids,” said Whisler.
In response to the book removals, Tony Kunz, a recent Westminster High School graduate, submitted a statement to the board saying he benefited from reading books that have been banned or challenged. It was crucial to his academic and social development.
“I worry that current Carroll County students will not enjoy these same freedoms,” he wrote. “As more books are suppressed and censored, school leaders are limiting students’ freedom and overstepping the 1st amendment itself.”
In another submitted statement about the book removals, Lloyd Jansen said it’s “disheartening” and insulting for the school system to restrict access to books.
“Please stop catering to the demands of a vocal minority and treat your library employees, students, and their parents with the respect they deserve by trusting them to make decisions for themselves,” Jansen wrote.