Jenn Smeiles and family

Walker County mom Jenn Smeiles, shown with her husband and children, appeared before the Walker County Board of Education on June 20 to address books with questionable content in school libraries.

What’s in your child’s school library? This is what Walker County mother Jenn Smeiles began to wonder during the pandemic when parents became more attuned to school materials and found books they considered inappropriate assigned to or made available to their children.

Smeiles became curious but says she did not expect to find such books in local schools. “Like you,” she told the Walker County Board of Education at their June 20 meeting, “I was sure that nothing so perverse could be in Walker County Schools. I could not have been more wrong.”

But what Smeiles found, says Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines, may or may not actually be in the libraries at this time.

“The list of books that Mrs. Smeiles brought to our attention,” says Raines, “comes from an older computer program we no longer use. We’re comparing the new list with the old to begin with. It’s part of the process of addressing Mrs. Smeiles’ concerns.”

The new program used by the school system, Raines says, is capable of flagging books that are of concern to parents or others, indicating they should be reviewed by the schools’ media specialists and other personnel.

In addition to providing board members with a school-by-school list of questionable books she found, Smeiles provided them with excerpts from some of the books, links to sites where more excerpts could be found and with studies that address the harm that can be done to children by exposure to sexually explicit, violent and racist materials.

If the books are found to be in the library, Raines says there is a process by which the school will review them.

“Most of the books in our library,” Raines says, “align with Georgia Standards of Excellence developed by the Georgia Department of Education. Other books are chosen based on what we think will attract students and get them to read more.”

Smeiles told the school board: “I have taken many hours over the past few months looking through the media center listings of the 15 Walker County Schools. My heart has been broken and my mind blown that such vulgar, racist, harmful content is available to our students. And the thing that blows my mind the most is that these books are given to students in a setting that parents never go into, nor are they able to guide their children in finding appropriate selections, nor are parents able to have discussions about the content their child reads because they have no idea what their kids have access to.”

Raines says one thing the school system has to take into consideration is how society has changed. “We’ve inherited a lot of things from society. Away from school, students are on social media and TV and exposed to a lot of things we have no control over.” Raines says children bring whatever they learn from these sources to school with them and schools must take that into consideration.

There is a process, says Raines, for parents who object to assigned books. “They can ask that their child be assigned an alternative book and the child will be graded on work related to the alternative. Our goal is always to work closely with parents.”

But Smeiles is concerned about books parents may never know about. “Most parents,’ she told the school board, “don’t think they have to worry, because they have trusted the schools to only provide age appropriate books that contain serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors. Instead students have access to books that contain — among other things — explicit sexual activities including child rape and abuse, adult and child prostitution, sexual nudity, bestiality, extreme levels of profanity, explicit violence, inflammatory racial commentary, homosexuality, excessive drug and alcohol abuse, radical activist ideology and exposure to sexual ideas that their minds cannot properly process.”

Smeiles says it’s hard to have a public discussion about much of what is in these books because the content is considered too obscene by Federal Communications Commission rules to be shared on social media platforms or at meetings that might be aired publicly.

“Today,” Smeiles told the school board, “I will not be reading any of the excerpts from these books. This is for a few reasons. The first is that my children are here today. Also there is simply too much vulgar content to possibly cover in many meetings. Thirdly, I am here to present a solution to this problem and encourage you to see how urgent this matter is.

“What I am asking for today is not banning or censoring books but having appropriate boundaries for the young lives that are in your care. This idea of boundaries on content is not new or foreign.”

Smeiles went on to talk about movie and video game ratings.

“This is the solution I present,” she said. “I have given you a chart with the criteria that movie ratings are based on. I propose that you form a group of parents and use that rating system, along with the research on harmful sexual experimentation, to set standards for the media center content in our schools.”

No schools, says Smeiles, should have books rated NC-17 or NC-17+. No schools should have books rated R — or such books should require permission from parents to be read. Middle school books should be ones rated G or PG and elementary schools should have only G-rated books.

“You should form a rotating parent counsel for each school,” said Smeiles, “that helps to lighten the heavy load that librarians have and who are able to peruse the books as well as field concerns from other parents and students about books that are below standard.”

“The whole health of students is important,” Smeiles told board members. “Schools have signs reminding students to wash their hands and cover their coughs. We also need signs in the media center that inform students of the district’s standards and encourages them to stop reading a book if they encounter this material and bring it to the librarian. The librarian can then give the book to the parent council that can then review the book and see if it is within these boundaries and if it is not then remove or restrict access to this book.”

Smeiles wrapped up her presentation with a challenge to the school board: “The fact that these inappropriate books are available to our kids in Walker County Schools is obvious. The fact that their content is vulgar and inappropriate is unquestionable. The question is, what are you — the gatekeeper — going to do about it?”

“We are not going to hide from this issue,” says Raines. “It doesn’t do any good not to address things. We are solution-driven. We have a process for everything and this issue will be reviewed. Our goal is to work closely with parents. We have a good relationship with the parents of our students.”

Raines says there is no deadline as of yet on when Smeiles will have some answers to her concerns. Smeiles says she is committed to seeing the issue resolved and will probably attend the board’s next work session where she might be able to speak more openly about the content of the books that concern her as well as about general standards for material in the schools.

Tamara Wolk is a reporter for The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. 

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