School Board Seeks Say in Book Policy

By Cara McCoy and Arianne Aryanpur Staff Writer and Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Loudoun County School Board members would be notified of a superintendent's decision to restrict student access to a book and would have the option of reviewing the case, under a proposed change that drew support Tuesday night from a board committee.

Under the proposal made by Board Chairman Robert F. Dupree Jr. (Dulles), the board would be told within 15 days of such a decision, and any three board members could opt to form a review panel, which would have the final say. Although members of the board's Legislative and Policy Committee supported the change, they said they would continue working on the proposal before sending it to the full board.

The discussion was prompted by the recent controversy over the children's book "And Tango Makes Three," about two male penguins that hatch and raise a chick. Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III removed the book from general circulation in Loudoun elementary school libraries in January, based on a parent's complaint that the book promoted a gay agenda, although two school review committees had recommended that it be kept on the shelves.

Hatrick has since acknowledged that the school system's policy on challenged library materials was not implemented correctly, and the book has been put back in circulation. But the board is pressing ahead with plans to change the policy, which was last revised in 1993 and does not require that the board be notified of book rulings by school administrators.

On Tuesday, the Legislative and Policy Committee rejected a broader change, proposed by John Stevens (Potomac), that would have barred a superintendent or a principal from overruling a book decision made by an appointed school review panel.

Dupree was among those opposing that idea, saying that he was concerned about taking power away from principals and being in the position of "second-guessing" them.

"They are the decision-makers in that building," he said. "I don't think it's good practice to overturn decision-making in schools and take it out of the hands of principals."

Among those attending the meeting was Kathy Hawes, president of the nonprofit organization Mainstream Loudoun, who said she supports making the process of restricting a book more transparent.

"I think there should be an opportunity, if the School Board, or whoever, decides to restrict a book in some way . . . that other parents in the community should be able to know about that and appeal that decision," she said.

Last week, Hatrick said his decision to pull the penguin book from general circulation should have applied only to Sugarland Elementary, the school where the parent filed her challenge, and not to the 13 other elementary schools that had purchased the book. On Monday, school officials issued a written statement saying that the book also would return to the shelves at Sugarland because Hatrick had discovered "significant procedural errors" in the way the case was handled.

The most notable error, officials said, is that the parent who challenged the book has children in Loudoun schools but not at Sugarland and, therefore, did not have standing to request that a book be removed from that school's library. The parent, Sherrie Sawyer, is a teaching assistant at Sugarland, according to records that school officials provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Another problem appears to be that Sawyer was notified June 12 of the Sugarland principal's decision to keep the book in the school's library, but she did not appeal that decision to Hatrick until Sept. 18. Under school system policy, such appeals must be made within five days.

Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard declined to say Tuesday whether that was one of the errors Hatrick uncovered, or what other mistakes the superintendent found. Byard emphasized that the main issue was that Sawyer's children do not attend Sugarland.

"That was the tipping point," he said.

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