Virginia school board reverses course on ban of ‘sexually explicit’ books after move seen as unconstitutional

A school board in northern Virginia reversed course Tuesday regarding the planned removal of “sexually explicit” books from school libraries, rescinding a previous vote after dozens of parents, students and educators voiced concern about banning certain books, some arguing the move was unconstitutional.

The Spotsylvania County School Board rescinded the vote, Fox 5 DC reported, after public discussion went on for hours Monday night as 68 people had signed up to speak. Hundreds, including parents, students, teachers and librarians, were in attendance, The Free Lance Star reported.

The heated public discussion came after the board moved last week to remove all books considered “sexually explicit” but failed to develop specific qualifications on what that categorization meant. Two parents had expressed concern over the content of two books, “Call Me By Your Name” and “33 Snowfish,” which their daughter had access to through the library at Riverbend High School.

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But several speakers gathered in Chancellor High School’s auditorium Monday directed their outrage at two board members, Kirk Twigg and Rabih Abuismail, who had publicly declared the books be burned – which critics compared to the Nazi regime’s book burnings before the onset of the Second World War. A petition for Abuismail removal had 1,045 signatures by Monday night and many attendees had signs demanding he “resign or face recall,” The Free Lance Star, a newspaper in Fredericksburg, reported.

“You have made local, state and national news and not for good reason,” one woman said at the meeting, according to Fox 5. A male librarian said, “I can’t believe I’m standing here tonight at a school board, I’m getting emotional, in America in 2021 and having to talk about books being banned.”

“I have a message from every single student to you school board,” a student said. “You have failed us!”

Abuismail, who at 24 is the youngest school board member ever elected in Virginia, has since apologized for his remarks about burning books, telling news outlets he misspoke out of frustration. He, however, had insisted his criticism of the books was not because they featured LGBTQ characters but instead over concerns about material depicting “pedophilia.”

“We shouldn’t remove the books because they have a gay character,” he said. “But any books that have pornographic material or pedophilia in them do not belong in the school system.”

Several speakers Monday demanded he go further to issue a public apology to the school division’s 34 librarians who were pulled from their normal duties to scan their collections for offensive material. 

“This board doesn’t understand who our students really are,” one county librarian said. “We have students who are victims of sexual abuse, who have been forced to prostitute, who have two moms or two dads, who identify as LGBTQ+, whose home is drug-infested. The school library is a safe place for them to find themselves in books.”

“I feel that one of our jobs as parents is to keep tabs on what our children read,” another parent said. “The conservatives or religious should not dictate what the school library offers my child because they have objection.”   

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“Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman depicts a romantic relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old visiting American Jewish scholar at his parents’ cliffside mansion on the Italian Riviera. It was developed into a movie starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet.

American writer Andre Aciman attends the presentation of his new book “Cercami” on Nov. 16, 2019, in Sesto San Giovanni, Italy.
(Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images)

“33 Snowfish” by playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp tells the story of three homeless youths in Chicago, one an orphan fleeing a caretaker who produces pornography, the second who is a child prostitute and a third who murdered his parents and kidnapped his younger brother to sell.

Playwright Adam Rapp poses at the opening night of the new play "The Sound Inside" on Broadway at Studio 54 Theatre on Oct. 17, 2019, in New York City.

Playwright Adam Rapp poses at the opening night of the new play “The Sound Inside” on Broadway at Studio 54 Theatre on Oct. 17, 2019, in New York City.
(Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

Board member Baron Braswell had indicated last week that he intended to put forward a motion to rescind the 6-0 vote to ban sexually explicit books after the school board attorney advised the move could be considered unconstitutional. 

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