DCC4D audited public schools' libraries

Daviess County and Owensboro public schools cooperated with the Daviess County Citizens for Decency performing an audit of the districts’ middle and high school libraries during the first semester of the 2023-24 school year.

The audit, its results and subsequent actions were revealed through a recent open records request of both schools.

The DCC4D used a formula system created by Ratedbooks.org — which is affiliated with the Moms for Liberty organization — as a guideline for the audit. The rating system places books on a 1-5 scale based on what it deems its age suitability.

According to the Ratedbooks.org’s formula system, Apollo High School had 24 books deemed a Level 4 for explicit sexual nudity or “obscene” references to sexual activity and four Level 5 books for explicit references to aberrant sexual activity. Daviess County High School had 36 books graded at Level 4 and five at Level 5. Daviess County Middle School was not found to have any books above Level 3.

DCC4D chairman Jerry Chapman wrote an email to Daviess County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Robbins on Oct. 1, 2023, that alludes to a conspiracy behind the books the DCC4D deemed inappropriate being in the high school libraries and questioned the middle school results while making accusations about teachers.

“As bad as the findings in the (Daviess County Public Library) are, they are a distant third to Daviess Co. High School and Apollo,” Chapman wrote. “To be very frank, someone has been working very hard to get that much ‘porn’ into the high school libraries. Given what we found in the high school libraries, the minuscule amount of objectionable literature we were able to uncover in the middle schools is dubious.

“As I mentioned, many teachers have hidden books they knew to be objectionable. I fear the small number we found in our three middle schools has betrayed them.”

The audit of Owensboro Public Schools showed the OHS library with eight books deemed at Level 4 and three at Level 5. The middle school was found to have one book rated Level 4.

Chapman wrote an undated letter to OPS Interim Superintendent Anita Burnette with the group’s findings, in which he again questioned if teachers were hiding materials. He concluded the letter by referring to “Marxist” movements that try to erode confidence in institutions, such as schools, and how he doesn’t want that destroyed.

“To this point, only our board, our Judge Executive, and you are aware of our findings,” Chapman wrote to Burnette. “We stand prepared to work with you in any way necessary to keep it that way. But please understand, when it comes to the well-being of our children we will not be deterred. Since I’m assured you feel the same, I’m confident that won’t be an issue.”

In an email from Burnette to OPS Public Information Officer Jared Revlett and Chapman on Jan. 29, she replied that two of the three Level 5 books at OHS were considered lost and would not be replaced. Burnette said the book found, “Sold,” had been removed. Of the eight Level 4 books, two were found in the library — “Slaughterhouse Five” and “The Kite Runner.” Burnette wrote that the principal over instruction would evaluate “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Burnette wrote that none of the Level 4 books noted as being at OMS were found.

Repeated requests to interview Robbins, Burnette and both districts’ school board members about their reasoning for cooperating with the audit and their actions taken as a result of the audit were declined.

However, the Messenger-Inquirer has obtained a recording of a meeting earlier this year between the superintendents, Revlett, DCPS board chairman James Morgan and members of the Coalition for an Inclusive Daviess County, during which coalition members outlined their concerns about the DCC4D coming into the schools, and school officials explained their decisions.

The following quotes are pulled from the audio recording of that meeting.

Culture war

As Robbins made clear to the Inclusive group, public school officials are in an uneasy political environment, with the state legislature having passed House Bill 2 this year, which proposes a new section of the Constitution of Kentucky to authorize the General Assembly to provide financial support for the education of students outside of the public school system. The measure will be on the ballot in November.

“That fits within the narrative of the culture war that’s going on,” said Robbins, who indicated it impacted how he dealt with the DCC4D. “We always have to measure time and place about how we make a public display of things, so there is that.”

Robbins also told the group that school officials don’t want to stir the pot, saying “when the media gets in front of us, we’re going to shut our mouths.”

Robbins said Chapman initially contacted him about DCC4D conducting an audit before former county commissioner George Wathen continued the push. Burnette said Chapman was OPS’ contact.

“... I think they sort of divided and conquered, because I started getting calls from George Wathen,” Robbins said. “I knew George. I didn’t know Jerry from John Doe.”

Robbins told the Coalition that DCC4D submitted an open records request for all books in the media center, and that the audit’s findings showed many of the books hadn’t been read in years.

“... I want to take a timeout for just a minute and express to you that, really, beyond our elementary schools, we wish we had kids coming into our media centers and reading books,” Robbins said. “The reality of that is, we wish that was happening. In fact, we looked at the books that were provided to us, and most of them were read very seldom — some zero, never checked out.

“I think that’s important in context. I asked the (DCC4D), what’s the value of a book that’s never read?”

Robbins said his and most school officials’ concerns are more focused on what children can find on the internet than what’s in the library.

“You have to understand the context of what we’re concerned about,” he said. “I will tell, and I’m sure (Anita) would agree and any school official would agree, that we’re much more concerned about the 24/7 access to social media, access to content (on the internet). It’s literally at their fingertips.”

Robbins said the DCC4D provided excerpts from the books it deemed inappropriate, which he passed on to high school staff.

“I don’t think they really took it seriously,” he said. “Of course, (DCC4D) kept calling me asking for updates, etc. So I then found two books in there that, from the material contained in the books, I was not comfortable defending. I immediately said these are examples of books from this list that I would ask that you remove. But (school staff) don’t even have the time to go through all of that kind of detail.”

Robbins said he made the decision to remove a couple of books based on his perspective of what is appropriate.

“I pulled the list again, and I did a random sample of five books,” he said. “And my son is a freshman at Apollo High School, and there are two lenses I looked at (it through): Would I be comfortable with my son bringing that book home based upon the content, pornographic content, contained in that book? That’s lens one. Lens two was, if I had found a kid who had written this material on a piece of paper in my school, would there be disciplinary consequences for it?”

While a handful of hard-copy books were removed from the library, students still have access to the Kentucky Virtual Library Network, which offers downloadable copies of the majority of books in school libraries.

“Some of them were audio books, and those remain if they’re audio books,” Robbins said. “We’re members of the Kentucky Virtual Library Network, which means the books that we have are all part of the virtual network, meaning I can download any of those books at any time, at any place, that I wanted. So those books that are quote removed from hard copy are still accessible.

“You think you’re stopping something and you’re not really stopping a darn thing. It’s all just visual.”

Censorship and Perspective

While Robbins said he found merit in some instances with the audit, he’s also concerned about the optics that excerpts from some books create without knowing context, and he’s worried about how that blows back on the schools.

“My main concern, you can sort of imagine, is if a person gets up in a public school board meeting with the media sitting right there and reads the kind of lewd, sexual references, where I read that excerpt and say, ‘This is in your school library,’ you’ve got to understand the position (Anita) and I are in; we’re accosted by the public on a deal like that,” Robbins said. “I understand that there could be greater context to the book and greater meaning, but if I pull that one page out, and again, if I had a child write that, they’d probably be suspended from school. So I had to come up with something appropriate there.”

Robbins said he told the DCC4D that removing books for topic-related reasons was a nonstarter for him.

“I had told them, because I didn’t really know what was on the list, I just told them if you’re coming in to tell me any book that’s offending racial topical lines, or LGBTQ, I said I’m not interested in removing topics,” he said. “And that’s why it went down to what I’d say was pornography, pornographic-type language, and I tried to focus on that.”

Burnette pointed out that OHS has had a LGBTQ student group for years, and like Robbins, she will not allow certain groups or ethnicities to be targeted through book bans or in any other way.

Robbins told the coalition he believes a generational divide plays a role in the DCC4D’s efforts.

“In 2024, and no offense for anyone in the room over 70 (years old), but I kind of felt like that was the demographic I was talking to (with the DCC4D),” he said. “They don’t really understand what’s going on in 2024 with kids K-12. I said I would be a whole lot more concerned with vaping. I’d be a whole lot more concerned with the fact our kids are using nicotine cartridges. They can buy them out in our community or get them in our community very easily that are THC, marijuana derivatives.”

Robbins also addressed the DCC4D’s tactics, calling the group “extremists.”

“I think with them behaving the way they’re behaving, we can’t call them out, but someone else can, with their being nefarious in how they’re acting,” he said.

Coalition members expressed concern about the DCC4D using its audit as the first step in getting far-right organizations or information into the schools.

Both superintendents said they’re not aware of Turning Point USA, a far-right student training organization that has been approaching schools nationally.

Burnette said Chapman did offer to provide books.

“He wanted to take them to a specific library, and I thought he had an ulterior motive, so I told him that we always accepted donated books for children, but to please bring them to central office, and then we can divvy them out to the libraries that need them the most,” she said. “But he didn’t bring any books.”

Coalition members asked if there was anything the group can do to assist the public schools.

Robbins said it starts with elections.

“We change people at the ballot box; it’s not easy,” he said. “If you don’t like the way things are going, then there has to be an impetus to make change from the leadership, and the only way you do that for elected (officials) is come November.

“We have to be nonpartisan; we get thrown into the fray. It’s tough sledding in the environment we find ourselves in, because it’s constant.”