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Library board continues discussion on unattended child policy

MURRAY – For the second month in a row, the Calloway County Public Library’s (CCPL) unattended child policy took center stage at the CCPL Board of Trustees meeting, yet as of Tuesday night, the issue remains unresolved. Tensions were high from the onset and only grew as staff brought out more chairs to accommodate well over a dozen members of the public who showed up to voice their opposition to the current policy. 

Most backed the policy revisions Trustee Debbie Bell proposed at the September meeting that would allow middle-school-aged children to be unaccompanied in the library for up to two hours if they signed a behavior contract. Several offered other potential solutions for the board to consider, such as working with the Friends of the Library group to organize volunteers to help supervise children after school or installing camera systems. Pat Seiber, a former local school administrator, suggested having a safety resource officer on staff to address behavior issues with both children and adults and manage behavior contracts. 

Later in the meeting, CCPL Executive Director Mignon Rutledge referenced Seiber’s suggestion, saying that it would be fantastic if there was an able candidate and a way to pay them. 

“There’s a misconception with the public,” Board President Lance Allison said to Rutledge’s point. “We are funded through property tax, right? And when you look at our balance sheet, you see X, Y, Z amount of money; but that does not mean that there is an unlimited pool of money. That’s part of what bothers me about this – we have limited resources on staff; and if you want to add staff, it takes money to add staff. There are some assumptions in the notes that I took that say, ‘OK, you have a big pot of money, and you don’t have to worry about it.’” 

Several of those who spoke researched other libraries’ policies around unsupervised children – not only regional libraries but also urban areas, such as Nashville and New York City – and with the exception of the Marshall County library which restricts children 10 years and younger from being in the library alone, none of the libraries contacted or researched online had such a policy. 

It is perhaps noteworthy that the issue is prevalent enough across the commonwealth that Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives (KDLA) provides guidance to Kentucky libraries on crafting unattended child policies.

“The library is absolutely beautiful; I understand why you don’t want kids in here,” Sue Hood said when it was her time to speak. Hood came with her daughter Ashley Holliday and granddaughter Lyla, the mother and daughter who spoke during the September meeting. 

“I called the New York City library because I was concerned about the crime in our area,” Hood continued. “When my daughter told me what had been said, I said, ‘Surely, you’re exaggerating. I know you follow in my footsteps a lot, but…’ It wasn’t exaggerated. That’s what was said – being molested in the library, the fear of the librarians. It hit all of us, I’m sure, when we read it, like, ‘We shouldn’t have expanded this place; we should’ve closed it down.’

“… I also called the (Murray) Police Department because I was concerned about kids being chained up underneath the sink, you know? And they were like, ‘No, we don’t know anything about that.’ So, I don’t know what’s happening; but if it was just a fear tactic, it got all of our attentions, I think. … I felt somewhat manipulated almost by that. This is what you’re going to say? If misbehaving kids don’t cut it, then we’ll use the fear thing and ‘We think they’re all going to be molested in the library.’ We gotta be better than that.” 

During the board’s discussion of the policy later in the meeting, Trustee Levi Weatherford responded to Hood’s accusations. “The meeting I was in wasn’t as fear mongering as some have said here. … It was just staff expressing and giving stories that have happened over the years to back up why we had this policy. There was a point when they were frustrated; they didn’t even want to be here.”

“The freedom to come into a library and to explore books and find something that you never thought about and to have the thrill of checking a book out is quite valuable,” Charlotte Beahan said. “I think that closing off a library to young minds is un-American.” 

Instead of having a separate contract as was suggested last month, Beahan suggested incorporating the behavior expectations into the library card application. That would also give library staff contact information for a child’s primary caregiver. 

“I do want to say thank you to those of you who are here and had the courage to make public comments,” Allison said. “This board – and I’ve said it to several different groups – is open; we are not closed off. We are not boards of the past, and your opinions and the things that you say are important to us. So, we will get into that (discussion on the unattended child policy) later.” 

Calloway County Public Library Board of Trustees President Lance Allison speaks at Tuesday’s meeting. JESSICA PAINE/The Murray Sentinel

When that time came, Bell led the board’s discussion on the policy. “What I want is for us to open up the library to middle school children under certain conditions,” she said and told those who spoke during public comment that she heard everything they said. “I’m taking it all to heart; so, however we change this, it’s gotta be better than what we’re doing now.”

“I have mixed emotions,” Allison said. “I think that some of our children that we have (behavior) concerns about are exactly the children we need to reach. You don’t know what a child is going through; you don’t know what their home situation is like; you don’t know what their parents are like. I don’t want to exclude any child.” 

Nonetheless, Allison said the information CCPL librarians reported to the board at last month’s meeting must be taken seriously. 

“Everything is good until it’s not,” Allison said. “So, when somebody says to me (they) feel like we were causing fear, like we were using one example and expanding it, (I say), ‘I’m sorry that we live in a world where you have to do that.’ Because the one moment that something happens (that violates) the safety of a child here, everything else doesn’t matter. This is a public venue; but there are a lot of public venues around here, and there are rules for age groups within those public venues. The library is no different than any other organization that has rules. 

“I’m fine with giving the opportunity for every child to have access to the library, but I’m not fine with staff being taxed to the point where they can’t do their jobs efficiently and effectively. … It’s important for people not to lose sight of the fact that the people that are paid to be here have responsibilities and they can’t be used in one area versus other areas.” 

In Bell’s proposal, all children under 12 years old must be directly supervised by an adult at all times in the library, but 12- to 16-year-olds would be allowed in the library without adult supervision, provided they sign a behavior contract and understand that they will be banned from the library if they violate it. 

Rutledge advised that, if the board decides to approve a policy that would allow children to be in the library unattended, she would prefer that no contract be involved. While some children may go through the process of signing a contract, that will not be the case for every child, which would make enforcing the policy even more difficult.

Trustee Levi Weatherford asked if there was a way to have kids scan their library cards when they enter the library, and Bell suggested they sign in at the desk upon arrival; however, Rutledge said that, while that can be required of adults, legally, it cannot be required of minors. 

The other key component of Bell’s policy is that no unattended children would be allowed on school days from 3-4 p.m.

“There’s a reason for that,” Bell said. “Children were flocking in here like starlings after school instead of going to the babysitters or Kids Company (the after-school program at Murray Middle School) or whatever, waiting for mom or dad to come and get them at 5-5:30 (p.m.). So, saying they can’t come for just that one hour will keep them from popping over here after school.”

“Will they just wander around outside until we can let them in the door at 4 o’clock?” Trustee Vonnie Hays Adams asked and added, “I don’t think that’ll help. They’ll be out in the yard until 4 o’clock, where there’s nobody watching them, where there’s traffic.”

“That’s not our problem,” Weatherford said. “Where your child goes after school is not the library’s problem. If your child wants to come to the library to check out a book, that’s a thing we serve, but to say, ‘My child can’t come from 3-4 (p.m.)? What are they going to do from 3-4 (p.m.)?’ I’m sorry, but that’s not the library’s problem.” 

A person in the audience interjected, “The library was expanded to give kids a place to go.” Allison disagreed, “The library was not expanded to provide more child opportunities after school; that’s not the purpose of the library.”

“I feel like we need a little help from the school over here,” Weatherford said. “I wish that (Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons and Murray Middle School Principal Bob Horne) could let the parents know that this is not a place for babysitters. I’m not saying every parent will listen; but if it’s in a packet, if it’s something the school system is letting them know, I think it would be listened to a little bit better than the Murray Ledger & Times or the library’s Facebook (page). … I’m not saying it’s the school’s responsibility; I’m asking for help. I’m asking Mr. Samons and Mr. Horne to help us.”

At the suggestion of Trustee Riley Ramsey, the board decided to form a committee to develop the new policy and provide recommendations to the board at the November meeting. The committee members are Seiber, Hood, Allison, Hays Adams, Rutledge, two CCPL employees and Ashley and Lyla Holliday. 

“I think all of our surrounding libraries have some sort of policy,” Hays Adams said. “Ours is the most restrictive. So, I feel like, if we take the time to do it, I totally believe that we can come up with something that works. It may not make everybody joyously happy, but I think we can find something that works, that the library staff can live with and, more importantly, these kids can be at the library.”

In other business, 5253 Design Group President Chris Cottongim attended the meeting virtually to give a brief construction update and presented Pay Application #26 in the amount of $356,959 to Bill Adams Construction as well as Change Order #42 which added $1,907 the original contract amount; both were approved. Cottongim advised the balance on the contract stands at $18,787, but as he advised last month, there is not enough work left on the punch list to spend all those funds; in other words, while the exact amount is not known at this time, the library will have money left over. 

Plans for a new sign in front of the building are still in the works; however, the estimate for masonry work and lighting came back higher than expected. The board asked Cottongim to try to negotiate a better price on the work and report back next month.

In the financial report, Business Manager Wyneth Herrington said that, at the end of September, the library held $347,250 in its construction account, $205,717 in the emergency contingency fund, $816,272 in the building reserve fund and a little more than $1 million in the money market account. The Beyond the Bricks campaign balance stood at $30,518. Including funds held in its checking account, CCPL held $2.7 million in cash and investments. 

Rutledge advised that Hays Adams was re-appointed to her trustee position and will be sworn in at the next fiscal court meeting. 

The Friends of the Library will hold its annual book sale on Saturday, Oct. 21. President Audrey Neal advised that those wishing to donate books should bring them to the library on Friday, Oct. 20, between 3 and 6 p.m. 

The next regular library board meeting is scheduled at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the library.

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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