Community members speak out against schools' author visit

Visitors are a regular occurrence at Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, but a writing workshop scheduled early next week has caused some to question those guests.

A group of residents, including some parents, spoke against author Dana Alison Levy’s impending visit to the elementary schools during Tuesday night’s School Board meeting.

Levy is this year’s guest author, part of a partnership with the Williamsburg Regional Library. Her third children’s book debuts in May and, like her past two stories, it features a family with same-sex parents.

She was invited because her book, “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher,” was part of the library’s reading list for the fourth- and fifth-grade Battle of the Books reading competition.

Most schools have all third- through fifth-grade students participating; some only have fourth and fifth grades. W-JCC has more than 2,600 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.

As of Friday, 17 families had opted out of the visit — five at Norge Elementary School, five at Stonehouse, two at Clara Byrd Baker and none at James River. The rest have one opt out.

Concerns

Dave Reid, a pastor at Smith Memorial Baptist Church, said he doesn’t support Levy’s visit. He said parents should have been informed of the visit earlier and be involved when deciding materials used in schools.

“You have been elected, by this community, to supervise what goes on — the materials, the books — activities that happen in this school system,” Ryan McAdams said. “We feel that our religious rights have been trampled in this case.”

Both men asked for the board to look at procedures in place for school guests and create policies if need be. Tim Kraus, a parent of four, said schools shouldn’t “facilitate or showcase family life subjects or curricula in any way.”

Most speakers echoed McAdams’ assertion that religious freedoms were in jeopardy and asked for the visit to be canceled.

School spokeswomen Betsy Overkamp-Smith officials are not reconsidering Levy’s visit to any of the schools.

Peter Vlamming argued that bringing Levy to the schools could be seen as the division endorsing same-sex marriage, which he considers a contentious and divisive issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with its June 2015 decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

A parent for four Clara Byrd Baker students, Cory Cimon brought up the First Amendment’s provision regarding religion, which extends to public schools.

“The content in the books is not appropriate teaching material in the schools and it puts public schools in serious jeopardy of violating the Establishment Clause,” Cimon said. “It violates our religious faith to introduce homosexual or transsexual views into our schools as an attempt to quote-unquote normalize it or normalize the environment.”

School response

During board comments, School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook said she would ask Superintendent Olwen Herron to look into best practices as well as procedures and policies already in place.

Notification to parents is done on a school level. Most elementary schools let families know about events a week in advance, Overkamp-Smith said.

She said a list or guide of “controversial topics” to which principals pay special attention does not exist.

“What’s controversial to one family is not controversial to another,” Overkamp-Smith said. “It’s subjective.”

The twice-annual visits have attracted authors including Avi, Eric Litwin and George Ella Lyon into schools for 14 years. Authors are chosen by the library.

Youth Services Librarian Sandy Towers helps coordinate the partnership.

“I do think children’s literature can mirror our own experience, but also be a window to the world, and I think it’s important for kids to read books of all types,” Towers said. “Having said that, it’s a family decision.”

Parents have the option to opt out of the visit by contacting their principal.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Author visit to elementary schools:

March 27: James River, Rawls Byrd, Matthew Whaley

March 28: D.J. Montague, Clara Byrd Baker, Matoaka

March 29: Stonehouse, Norge, J. Blaine Blayton

School phone numbers:

Clara Byrd Baker: 221-0949

D.J. Montague: 258- 3022

James River: 887-1768

J. Blaine Blayton: 565-9300

Matoaka: 564-4001

Matthew Whaley: 229-1931

Norge: 564-3372

Stonehouse: 566-4300

Rawls Byrd: 229-7597

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