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Forsyth parents suggest taskforce to address content in school libraries

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Forsyth County parents and residents asked the Board of Education March 21 to address sexual content in library books following months of debate on the subject.

The Board of Education affirmed the district media committee’s decision to allow Jay Asher’s “13 Reasons Why” to remain in a district middle school’s library. The 2007 novel details the events that lead to a teenage girl’s suicide.

“I just want to say that our opinion today doesn't say that the book is good or bad or appropriate or inappropriate,” District 5 Board Member Mike Valdes said. “It's very narrowly focused on: Did they follow the policy? And in my opinion, they did.”

Schools Superintendent Jeff Bearden said it is not the board’s role to act as the book police in the county, but it serves to provide oversight and ensure the district is run well. After the vote, one audience member shouted, “Did you read the book?”

Speakers at meetings had insisted the School Board address library books they deem inappropriate for children. Mama Bears of Forsyth County members Alison Hair and Cindy Martin filed a successful lawsuit against the board in 2022, which allowed Hair to continue reading explicit passages from books in local school libraries at board meetings.

Last month, Martin read an explicit excerpt from a novel that is available as an audiobook at West Forsyth High School, and two speakers agreed the district should limit students’ access to the material.

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Forsyth County parent Lauren Voyles addresses the Board of Education at its March 21 meeting. Voyles requested the board create a taskforce to address sexual library books available in the district.

Sex education policy

At the March 21 meeting, speaker Lauren Voyles said the mature books violate the district’s sex education policy, and she recommended the board create a taskforce to address the books.

“We elected you to represent us and our morals and our values at a local level,” Voyles said. “This is going to impact our kids for decades. We all know this is wrong. We all know this is wrong, so where are we supposed to go? We're just supposed to ignore it, like it's just going to go away on its own? It's not. These are our children.”

Speaker Katherine Wolter also said she suggested the board create a taskforce, and she volunteered to become a member like Voyles.

However, Forsyth Coalition for Education member Becky Woomer said the county has a good media review process.

“Our mission is to protect students' rights and to respect the work and expertise of teachers, media specialists and principals,” Woomer said. “While we have a range of advocacy interest in education, there's a lot of urgency right now around book challenges. Our position is, if there's a school library book you don't want your child to have access to, no problem. If there's a book you don't want my child to have access to, massive problem.”

Woomer said Forsyth County students are entitled to a diversity of voices and viewpoints in their books, and while library books harm nobody, intolerance and hate spoken in the community does.

Providing safe haven

Also at the meeting, the Board of Education heard a presentation by West Forsyth High School students Ava, Emma and Maddie on the Welcoming Wolverines, a group dedicated to making friends with students and providing a safe place.

“These kids have huge hearts,” group sponsor and Counseling Secretary Christine Jackson said. “They are full of kindness, love, compassion. They connect with everybody they meet. They make everybody laugh, but most of all, their smiles and their laughter are contagious.”

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West Forsyth High School Counseling Secretary Christine Jackson introduces Welcoming Wolverines members Ava, Emma and Maddie at a March 21 Board of Education meeting. The group aims to provide a friendly atmosphere and safe place for students.

The three students shared why they joined the Welcoming Wolverines, and they presented each boardmember with a bracelet with positive words of affirmation, which they often make for students in the group.

“I had a friend who lost his life in 2021,” Ava said. “And I wonder if he had a group like this, or a place where people could just have, like, genuine connections, he would still be here with us today. And I wonder how many people's lives we've saved. And if we could just save one life, it would mean a lot for all of us to connect. And I know it’s helped save mine.”

Emma said the group plans to power wash, provide yard work and clean a retirement home this spring.

Board members also recognized Kelly Mill Elementary School Head Custodian Richard Toomey for his nomination as a top-10 finalist in Cintas Corporation’s 2023 Custodian of the Year contest.

Reach Shelby Israel at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @shelbyisrael1.