Parents and community leaders shared their concerns at the Harford County Board of Education meeting Monday evening about the formation of a new book review committee.
Councilman Aaron Penman mentioned the committee at last week’s County Council meeting. Council members Dion Guthrie, a Democrat, and Jessica Boyle-Tsottles worked with Penman on the book review initiative before the summer break, according to Penman. Penman and Boyle-Tsottles are Republicans.
“Myself, Dion Guthrie and Jessica Boyle-Tsottles met with [schools superintendent] Dr. Bulson and his staff members to discuss some of the inappropriate material that is in the school libraries,” Penman said at the council meeting. “Dr. Bulson and his staff were receptive to forming a committee to discuss a standard policy for appropriate material, so that committee has been formed.”
Some parents attended County Council meetings during the last school year to share their concerns regarding library books with pornographic material, according to Penman.
“We had some constituents come to the council for public comment, and to meet with myself and other council members to discuss what they felt were inappropriate material inside the school libraries,” said Penman. “So having that discussion and reviewing some of the materials that were there, we met with Bulson and his staff to explain some of the constituents’ concerns. Based off that meeting, it was recommended to form a work group with parents, teachers, principals, librarians, school board members and obviously a council member, to establish procedures and guidelines for library materials.”
However, Superintendent Sean Bulson said during Monday’s school board meeting that it is not a book review committee, but a small group that represents an array of stakeholders to consider the many elements involved purchasing and reviewing books.
“There are so many issues around this topic related to the books in our school and we want to find common ground,” said Bulson. “We have to look at the process we use when we purchase books and the process of how we are reviewing books when they are challenged. I think we have a great group of people, again keeping it small, to help us start thinking of and know what steps need to happen.”
The school system’s spokesperson, Kyle Andersen, reiterated Bulson’s stance in an email Tuesday.
“This group is not a book review committee and will not have the responsibility of reviewing books and making decisions,” Andersen said. “The primary focus of this group is to review the existing practices of Harford County Public Schools and review possible changes of those processes while ultimately recommending how to proceed. This group met the first week of school and will continue until that time they decide to make any recommendations.”
At Monday’s school board meeting, parents shared concerns about the committee, including a lack of transparency by the school board and whether the formation of the small group was driven by the controversial conservative political action group, Moms For Liberty, and its supporters.
Two members of the school board, Melissa Hahn and Diane Alvarez, were endorsed in the 2022 election by the Harford County chapter of Moms for Liberty. Two board members recently appointed by County Executive Bob Cassilly, Lauren Strauss and Terri Kocher, reportedly have ties to the group.
Strauss said that she is the school board representative on the committee and attended its first meeting.
Parent Cheryl Adams said she believes that the “pornographic” material referenced by some members in the community are really books on diversity and LGBTQ+ that Moms for Liberty and their supporters want removed.
“The American Library Association has tracked an astronomical increase in book challenges over the past three years, from 223 in 2022 to 2,571 in 2022,” Adams said during public comments at the meeting. “We are at a crossroads with freedom of speech and censorship. When I look at the actions from this Moms for Liberty group, some members of which are sitting on the board, they are a huge driver behind these challenges. I see a group that is consistently trying to eliminate the LGBTQ community and erase [the] accurate history of slavery that is the actual foundation of this country. Why? Why the challenge to eliminate these books?”
The Aegis reached out to local and national representatives of Moms for Liberty for comment on the matter, but the organization did not respond.
Charlene Hought, an educator for more than 30 years with 18 years in Harford County teaching language including Spanish and French, said she hopes that Harford is not heading down the same path as other counties, including Carroll County.
Officials with Carroll County Public Schools are reviewing requests for the removal of books from public school library shelves. As of Aug. 15, the total number of books requested for removal is 53.
The Carroll County chapter of Moms for Liberty made the removal requests, said chapter vice chair Jessica Garland.
“Banning books or censoring reading materials for our students or advocating for the right of every single child in each school is very important to me,” said Hought, “but something that is concerning to me is lack of transparency. If this committee was formed, why weren’t we told beforehand and why are we just finding out about it now?”
Whiteford resident Christy Larkin, a member of the school system’s Parent Advisory, Advocacy, and Action Council, received an email about the small group in July from Harford County Public Schools. The email said the newly formed group was called the School Library Material Review Committee and that its first meeting was Aug. 29.
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“I replied back that I am interested in learning more about the intended goals for this committee, what was the anticipated time commitment, and who from the Board of Education is currently assigned or appointed to it,” said Larkin, “but I didn’t hear from them again.”
While the topic was not on the board meeting agenda, Bulson addressed the community’s concerns.
“There will be more that happens publicly when we start zeroing in on possibly putting a procedure out,” Bulson said. “At the end of all of this, we are going to reconstitute a group of people whose jobs will be to review challenged books.”
Bulson continued: “This is such an emotional topic and there’s so much in the media. I asked that people give us a little trust while we get the conversation started. We won’t hide anything we do from this community. We want to make sure how we work in these schools is something that people can live with.”
The next board meeting is Monday at 6:30 p.m.