Rockwood Under Fire

The divide between the Rockwood School District and parents has grown substantially since March 2020 with parents in an uproar about the district’s current handlings of Critical Race Theory, COVID protocols and banned-books, which some parents speculate is a part of Rockwood’s ´political agenda.’

While Rockwood has had its share of uproar over the past two years, banned books and COVID protocols have been under the most scrutiny as of recent.

Book banning has spread to schools across the country like wildfire, with two school board members in Virginia calling for book burning and lawmakers in Texas sitting on a list of 850 books under consideration of a ban. Rockwood has become the most recent battleground.

There are currently eight books in Rockwood libraries that are undergoing the book challenging process, where district officials and community committees will decide if the books will be allowed to remain on shelves.

The challenges come based on topics and content presented in the books, including race, sexuality, profanity and graphic content.

The books creating the most outcry in the district include The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson and The Haters by Jesse Andrews, all of which are currently offered in the Eureka High library.

These books highlight different and diverse perspectives for students to experience, but many parents are asking at what cost.

“The books in our library I am concerned about tonight contain inappropriate sexual descriptions of sex between children, teens and even adults and minors. It represents an alarming agenda that targets youth hiding behind the virtuous words of diversity and inclusion,” Rockwood parent Kristin Eldridge said at the November Board of Education meeting. “Of course we must welcome children of all identities into our libraries and there are plenty of books that do that. Again, what I am deeply concerned about is the large number of books sitting on our library shelves with the agenda of sexually grooming our children.”

Some school officials believe that diversity and inclusion should be prioritized on library shelves, and that students should be able to see themselves in the books offered by the school.

“[The contested books] address students at Eureka High School who have needs, who are looking to see themselves, who need information. So it may not be what [some parents] want, and it may not be what their child needs, we felt like it meets students’ needs,” Eureka librarian, Janie Pickett said.

As parents get angrier with the content in certain books, they are raising the question of how the books got on the shelves of school libraries in the first place.

For every Rockwood book, there is a district process in place to approve these books. Each book selected has to have proven literary merit, mainly proven through literary awards. These books also serve to portray strong plots, characterization and other literary devices, as well as allowing students to have access to diverse viewpoints and new ideas. But to some parents, literary merit is not justification enough.

“…and the goal is to give a variety of perspectives. It’s now clear that books with sex, drugs and violence are perfectly acceptable in Rockwood’s libraries, as long as you deem the book to be well-written and with a diverse perspective,” Rockwood parent Jennifer Weston said at the November Board of Education meeting. “I find it hard you can’t find well-written and diverse perspectives that do not contain questionable material. Striving for diverse perspectives should never come at the expense of exposing our kids to topics that are not age appropriate.”

It has become harder for district officials to draw the line of what is deemed too much for students. To librarians, there are obvious examples of content that shouldn’t be offered to students, but for books that have passed the district process, they believe it has proved it’s merit in Rockwood libraries.

“If there was a way, let’s say that Playboy Magazine got into the library, I could see banning those and in that case censorship would be okay, but most districts and certainly Rockwood has a board approved process on how we select books,” Pickett said. “Librarians follow this process. If I went out and bought a book just because I liked it, but didn’t follow the process, then maybe that’s something we should look at. But if I follow the board process, then I don’t think anything approved by that process should be removed, or banned or censored.”

Despite the outlined approval process, parents still believe that these titles shouldn’t have been on school shelves in the first place, and are now taking the titles through the district challenging process.

The challenging process begins at the school level. Parents can email or call the school library, express their concerns over a title and from there take the next steps. Parents who are concerned over a title can put a note on their student’s Infinite Campus account prohibiting them from checking out that book.

If a parent chooses to continue with the challenging process, they will fill out a form with the building principal that goes to Shelly Willott, Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Support Services. The book is then given to the challenge committee who writes up a report that goes to the Board of Education. The board will vote to remove or keep the book. Books that are challenged can’t be challenged again for five years.

The first committee meeting met on November 30. Willott is hoping to have all of the committee meetings and rulings completed by winter break.

The lengthy process was put in place to give a definitive decision to the community, but some parents have concerns with the tiring process, as they feel it should be easier to make the change they seek.

“Each of you, the leaders of Rockwood, should be strategizing on how we can clean up and audit our library shelves as soon as possible. The process of writing challenges for every library book is not efficient enough,” Eldridge said.

Additionally, there are concerns about the makeup of the committee, as students are now involved.

“We just learned that if we challenge a high school book the review panel will bring in students, the very people we are trying to protect, big mistake,” Janet Diedritch, a Rockwood parent, said at the November Board of Education meeting.

Parents have also voiced concern that there is no list or inventory that can be given to them so they can look out for more titles that may raise concerns.

Despite the concern with the process, the district is going to stick with it’s policy to challenge books, and at this time, there is no indication otherwise.

Until winter break, there’s really no way to know how the situation will play out, and where the boundary in district materials will be drawn, especially as the community is split on the issue.

“Parents always have a say in curriculum, parents always have a say in what goes on with their children and what they have access to, but I also think it is important to realize that there are diverse voices in Rockwood too,” Willott said. “So for every person that has reached out to me to say they don’t want their child to read a certain book, I’ve had parents reach out to me and say they do want their child to read this certain book. That’s why we offer choice, that way every family can make that decision on their own.”

The issue of censorship in the district is a sensitive one, and an important one as intellectual freedom is called into question. Should students be given the intellectual freedom to choose a book– no matter how graphic? Or do students need protection?

Some who are against this wave of censorship are worried about what this means for issues of intellectual freedom in the future.

“Our first goal should be to ensure that you and I have the right to read what we choose to read, and I’m not talking about the extremes you could easily find. We need to keep an eye on the big ideal of intellectual freedom,” Pickett said. “Censorship is just wrong. I think if we take that first step it’s not like going down a grassy slope, it’s like going into an empty elevator. If you challenge and remove one book then how do you decide what is or isn’t removable later?”

Additionally, it’s hard to say where the challenges are coming from and where they are going.

“I would say there is a lot going on in our society that this is coming up. Social media connects people like people haven’t been connected before so I feel like that has something to do with it. Parents are wanting to be involved in their kid’s school, too. So it just depends on the challenge to challenge what’s going on there,” Willott said.

Social media has become the stirring pot for this issue, but it’s unlikely that social media is the only factor pushing this wave of book banning, one that many in education have never seen before.

“In my 28 years, I’ve seen book challenges come and go but only one or two at a time if that, and I’ve never seen this many at once, so that is unique, but there have always been questions about books and there have always been books that people wanted removed from schools.”

This unique situation, with so many different factors and an unknown exigence presents an image of a polarized society as a whole. Whether it is the decision between the role of parents in schools, student rights, diversity and inclusion in schools or the idea of censorship in society, Rockwood remains a community divided.

As book banning becomes a hotter topic nationwide, it is unknown how the issue will play out in Rockwood. This issue, however, will answer many important questions on freedoms and controls in the American school systems, hitting too close to home for Rockwood parents and students.

Furthermore, as vaccine rates rise and COVID cases go down, parents all over Rockwood are wondering when students will be out of masks. The Rockwood School district is doing everything in their power to get students out of masks through a volunteer vaccination disclosure.

Parents, however, are becoming increasingly frustrated with Rockwood and the way they are handling COVID and masking within the district.

¨Last year our kids were told to wear masks to protect the teachers, all teachers have now had the opportunity to protect themselves by getting the vaccine, students don’t have to wear masks anymore,¨ Elizabeth Cohen, a Rockwood parent who spoke at the board meeting, said. ¨This year our kids were told to wear masks to protect themselves and students who couldn’t get vaccinated, every child 5+ can now get vaccinated, so students no longer need to wear masks to protect other students.¨

Some parents believe that vaccines and COVID protocols should not be forced upon their children, as it’s up to the parents to make the final decision.

¨Vaxed or Unvaxed, conservative or libreal, you are to remain impartial, you are not allowed to tell my children who to vote for, or enforce their medical choices, or give them reasons on why they should or should not get vaccinated,¨ Sarah Bryant, a Rockwood parent who spoke at the board meeting, said.

Rockwood officials have stated that while vaccinating your child is optional, it is encouraged so Rockwood can move forward and potentially change COVID protocols, for some though, these changes can’t come soon enough as some children have started to experience side effects from wearing masks for extended periods of time that affect their daily learning.

¨Wearing a mask makes it hard for me to breathe, it hurts my chest sometimes, then it makes me feel like I have to isolate my breath and then my stomach hurts during the day because I am breathing so hard,¨ Chase Bryant, a Rockwood elementary student who spoke at the board meeting, said.

Some children have also stated that their mask wearing has caused them to be yelled at and picked on by teachers.

¨I always get yelled at by so many teachers,¨ Zander Bryant, a Rockwood elementary student who spoke at the board meeting, said. ¨I get sad because I really want to help my friends but I’m scared I will get in trouble, I want to go to school but I get upset when I can’t high five my friends.¨

Patrons have also stated how disgusting masks become, and how bacteria can collect on the inside of them after the long school day.

¨Many masks have been laid on the floors, on the tables, everywhere, some are wet from being chewed on, many appear as if they have never been washed at all and some appear green from the mucus of their runny noses,¨ Lisa Gard, a Rockwood patron who spoke at the board meeting, said.

Besides the physical issues caused by vaccines and masks, some parents are concerned about the psychological effects masks have on kids.

¨I know it was even difficult for me to even look at the faces of kids with how gross their masks were and what effect that has on them when people won’t give them eye contact,¨ Gard said. ¨Also, what are we doing to kids psychologically by making them afraid of a virus that has only taken 20 children out of 74 million?¨

Gard also states that there may be some effects on a child’s growing communication skills because they can not communicate properly with masks

¨The psychological damage that’s done because you cant see each other’s faces, they cant understand the tone of voice, you take this part of communication from the children that are developing is like teaching a child to write with their fingers tied together,” Gard said.

The ¨Rockwood Safe Together Plan¨ currently states that they are encouraging parents to work with health officials to determine if the vaccine is right for their children and if it is, to go forward with it. The Board of Education is waiting for winter break to pass and see where the numbers go before any change is made.

¨We are going to see what happens after thanksgiving and see in 2 weeks where that’s at, and then we will see what happens after winter break,¨ Ricker said. ¨We don’t want to do this masking all year long, we know people are getting worn out but, we know we have to be strategic with it and use the science that’s in front of us.¨

Parents still want a specific timeline for this event along with many others, and are becoming restless waiting for the answers that Rockwood won’t give.