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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pender County school board debate district review process of challenged books

“The Bluest Eye,” “Brave New World” and “Slaughterhouse Five” were among a list of 42 reviewed by Pender County Schools earlier this year. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

PENDER COUNTY — Challenging books in Pender County Schools could become a district-wide responsibility per revisions discussed by the school board Tuesday.

READ MORE: PCS removes 8 books on content, proposes change in school start time

The Pender County Board of Education reviewed two policies regarding the selection and examination of textbooks and supplementary materials, policies 3200 and 3210. 

Under the revised policies, put forth by newest board member Phil Cordeiro, a book challenged at one school would trigger investigations at all other schools of the same grade level that offer the same book in their libraries. 

If a book were removed for inappropriate content during a collection weeding process — how eight books were removed from school shelves earlier this year — the book would also need to be reviewed at commensurate schools.  

The policy change follows PCS’ review of 42 books on a list submitted by protestors linked to conservative advocacy groups. Each title was reviewed by the schools’ Media and Technology Advisory Committees, made up of school staff, parents and students. Eight books, almost all from middle schools, were deemed unsuitable due to “age or pervasive sexually explicit content.” 

However, a few books removed from one school still remain in others of the same grade level. For example, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which follows a teen girl’s thirteen reasons why she killed herself, was removed from West Pender Middle, but was retained at Topsail Middle. 

This outcome was also addressed in the proposed policy revisions. If those schools came to a different conclusion on whether to remove a book, the final decision would be made by the district’s Community Media Advisory Committee.

Board members Beth Burns, Don Hall and Ken Smith were wary of making the decisions more bureaucratic when, they indicated, the effort should be to support parents’ rights. 

“I think that we have individual communities here in this county and they should have individual choices,” Burns said during the meeting. 

She cited the Covid-19 pandemic and the backlash on masking as opening her eyes to the need for more parent involvement in education. 

“I think this should be up to the school,” Burns said. “There should not be another level of government that comes in and says, ‘OK, we’re going to make this county-wide.’” 

Cordeiro maintained his goal was not to supersede the wishes of parents and individual schools; the district would review the MATC reports and parents and media personnel from the schools would still be involved in the district decision.

“If you have a group of educators, media specialists, etc., that has clearly made a determination that the book contains [obscene] material and is not appropriate for a specific child in that age group, it would be a dereliction of the district’s duty to not take a look into that,” Cordeiro said. 

He clarified he would not describe the review and removal process as banning books because parents could still access the title at a public library or order it on Amazon. 

Smith said he didn’t see the need for the policy changes because the rules were already working. He pointed out there has only been one parent-challenged book out of 11,000 students. 

“It’s almost, as we go to Walmart and buy a vacuum cleaner and before we even take it out to see how it functions, they look at it and say, ‘You know what? Let’s just scrap this and just get a whole other vacuum cleaner,’” Smith said.  

Instructional Technology Specialist Craig Lawson expressed caution toward policy revisions, noting it would make challenges and the weeding process more time-consuming. The policy revisions would allow parents 30 days instead of seven to appeal a decision on the challenge.

Hall questioned Lawson on whether the authors of the eight books removed earlier this year — including “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley and “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie — were having other books they’ve written reviewed, like he asked after the board voted to remove the eight books in May.  

Lawson noted it was discussed post-review of the 42 books but did not answer if the books had undergone a weeding process. 

During the meeting, Smith also warned of overstepping when it comes to book review and stressed the good work being done by educators. 

“I really don’t think anyone in our community — and if so their mind is perverted — but I don’t think anyone in our community wants to put pornographic material in our libraries,” Smith said. “I would encourage parents to know what their child [is reading] and have those conversations one-on-one with them. What might be allowed in one home might now be allowed in another.” 

The policy will revert back to the policy committee before coming back to the school board for consideration. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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