Parents and guardians whose children attend Hamilton County schools will now be the only ones who can file formal complaints about books and other materials.
The new policy, adopted at Thursday’s board meeting, states that a person must have standing to complain to the district, which means they must legally care for a child who is directly hit. The policy encompasses all materials provided by the district and is not limited to the school the child attends.
The policy passed by an 8-0 vote, with board member Tiffanie Robinson, a Chattanooga independent, absent. He describes a new complaints procedure, which the district had not implemented until Thursday:
1. A complainant must submit a Request for Review of Instructional Materials form, the validity of which will be reviewed by the school principal and teacher.
2. Upon receipt of the completed form, the Director will request a review of the disputed material within 20 working days. The principal will form an ad hoc materials review committee. Members of the committee will be the executive director or director of education, the president of the school’s parent-teacher association or another parent representative appointed by the principal, a principal of a county school serving same grade levels and in the same learning community as the schools in which the complaint was filed, and a teacher from a county school serving the same grade levels and in the same learning community as the school in which the complaint was filed.
Committee members will determine if the material meets the district’s selection criteria and communicate their decision to the school principal. The complainant then has 15 days to appeal the committee’s decision to the Board of Education, which can uphold the review committee or grant a new hearing, the policy says.
Hixson board member Rhonda Thurman wanted to confirm that parents of a student in the district can raise concerns about educational materials at any school — not just the school their child attends. . District officials have confirmed that this will be permitted.
School board attorney Scott Bennett told board members that community members can still exercise their First Amendment rights and voice their dissent before the board, but those who don’t have a student in the district will not have access to the procedure for having a hearing at the school level.
What community members can say in front of the council regarding the books has yet to be determined. Bennett said the policy leaves it up to the board to decide what that might look like.
Jenny Hill, an independent Chattanooga board member, said letting anyone come before the board about materials is a waste of time.
“If you want to let anyone come and read a book without context, you’re inviting chaos,” Hill said. “It’s not productive. And I wonder if it was a good use of the council’s time. I would say it’s not. And I pity the council deciding to sit again.”
The board also adopted a new 7-1 Materials Selection Policy. It includes the provision that while some material may be considered offensive, it may still be used if it demonstrates educational and literary merit.
(READ MORE: Hamilton County School Board accepts report from Book Review Committee)
Independent Marco Perez of Signal Mountain took issue with the word “offensive”, and he cast the only negative vote accordingly.
“It’s a very broad term for me,” Perez said, “that doesn’t really set any parameters at all.”
Bennett responded by saying that, legally, the term is meant to be broad.
“Offense is actually a term used in law by the Supreme Court to recognize that community standards differ,” Bennett said. “And this local school board is, to a large extent, the arbiter of community standards here in this city. And so you are the voice of your constituents. They speak to you about their values and you convey them to the school system.”
Perez said he understood but that didn’t ease his concerns.
“My concern here, when I think about it in practice, is that schools, in order to avoid tension, (administrators) will choose the lowest common denominator,” Perez said.
Karitsa Jones, board member, D-Chattanooga, agreed with Perez.
“All of these criteria allow it to become subjective,” Jones said. “And I agree with Marco because what may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another.”
Bennett responded that the policy was designed to prevent censorship and protect offensive material which also has value.
“You can’t ban ideas,” Bennett said. “So you can’t say, ‘We don’t like the content of this, the ideas behind this. We think it’s anti-American or we think it’s anti-whatever. “”
He added that age suitability can be regulated.
(READ MORE: No education issue was too big — or small — for Tennessee lawmakers this year)
The new policy also outlines the criteria for including material containing mature content, coarse language, and suggestive themes.
Among other criteria, administrators must consider “the extent to which the content can be considered offensive to contemporary graphic depictions of violence or sex etc.,” he says. Donated materials will not enter library or classroom collections regardless of the selection criteria.
Hill said she hopes administrators will select documents based on their value and not overlook certain books lest someone challenge them.
“I will implore our staff to have a backbone to avoid weaker, less courageous choices to just pull things through willy-nilly so they don’t have to go through the (complaint) process,” said Hill.
Contact Carmen Nesbitt at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.