IW School Board changes policy for challenging books, resources

Published 6:40 pm Friday, April 29, 2022

Isle of Wight County Schools’ updated policy that allows parents to challenge books and other learning resources now explicitly states materials “shall not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

The School Board voted 3-1 on April 21 to make the change after two parents used the process outlined in School Board Policy KLB to push for the removal of content from all iPads issued to the school system’s 5,500-plus students, arguing that the content promoted only “one side” of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as “anti-police” sentiment and “diminished family and religious values.”

Heidi Swartz, the mother of a Smithfield High School student, had argued in an appeal before the School Board earlier this month that when she’d searched on her son’s school-issued iPad in the Discovery Education app for “police,” the first seven articles to appear related to police brutality. Candice Vande Brake, the mother of a Windsor Elementary kindergartner, had looked through Hampton Roads public broadcasting station WHRO’s “eMediaVA” app and found a children’s book titled “Max and the Talent Show,” which features a transgender character.

Both parents had successfully petitioned to have the apps removed from their own children’s devices, but had then sought to end the apps’ use throughout the school division, taking their requests initially to a school-level committee, then to Isle of Wight County Schools’ central office and finally to the School Board, which ultimately voted each time to continue using the apps divisionwide.

Board member John Collick cast the dissenting vote.

“Who will consider a topic ‘partisan’? … If it’s considered ‘partisan’ to want to remove it, it will be just as partisan to want to retain it, just by definition,” Collick said. “Political issues, under no circumstances, should be part of the curriculum to start with.”

Collick also took issue with added verbiage that now states the decision of the superintendent, or his or her designee, may be appealed to the School Board “or reviewed at the School Board’s request.”

He questioned whether the language would allow the School Board to deny a parent the chance to make a final appeal, and instead just review the central office’s written recommendation. A previous version of the policy, adopted in 2020, had stated the complaining parent “may appeal the decision” to the superintendent or superintendent’s designee, “and, then, to the School Board.”

According to Susan Goetz, the school division’s executive director of leadership, the current policy language is recommended by the Virginia School Boards Association.

“As a general matter, when there is vagueness to a policy it is up to the School Board to interpret its own policy,” School Board attorney Pakapon “Pak” Phinyowattanachip said.