Wednesday, June 19, 2024

PCS restricts 2 ‘garbage’ library books previously OK’d after board member reads passages aloud

Other member denounces state legislators over Parents Bill of Rights

Pender County Board of Education member Phil Cordeiro reading sex scenes from two library books aloud during the Oct. 10, 2023, board meeting.

PENDER COUNTY —  Audience members and district employees were made a captive audience at Tuesday’s Pender County school board meeting when one school board member read aloud passages from library books containing sexual content.

READ MORE: Pender County school board debate district review process of challenged books

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

The board was discussing proposed amendments to policy 3210 on parental objection to instructional materials when board member Phil Cordeiro singled out two books: “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas. 

The books were part of a 42-book list reviewed by the county earlier this year and contain sexual situations.

While taking no action on the policy amendments, the board did vote to remove the books from library shelves temporarily. The books may be checked out with a parental permission slip until the board reviews its policies and procedures regarding library collections.

“Thirteen Reasons Why” follows a teenage girl’s retelling of the events that contributed to her suicide. “A Court of Mist and Fury” is the second novel in a fantasy series about a teenage assassin’s challenge to a tyrannical leader in a corrupt kingdom. 

Last spring, different rulings were made on these two novels during the district’s review of 42 books submitted to the board by conservative parents’ rights advocates. The “weeding” done by each school’s Media Technology Advisory Committee resulted in eight books’ removal from library shelves due to age appropriateness or “pervasive sexually explicit content.” 

Complications arose when one school removed a book while another chose to keep it. “Thirteen Reasons Why” was removed from West Pender Middle but retained at Topsail Middle. “A Court of Mist and Fury,” was removed from Pender High School but retained at Topsail High School.

The contradicting decisions demonstrate the subjective nature of book reviews; board chair Ken Smith and member Beth Burns have both maintained that what one parent considers acceptable is different from another parent. 

Burns has favored leaving the decision up to each school.

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

But Cordeiro, who sits on the policy committee, has said collections should be consistent across the district. The policy amendments discussed Tuesday would require all schools to review a book if challenged at one school. If differing decisions resulted, a district-level committee would make the determination.

Complicating matters further, school districts across the state are waiting for final policy guidance from the North Carolina School Boards Association regarding the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights. The new law grants more latitude and stricter timelines for inspection of instructional materials.

Burns and board member Don Hall stated they did not want to pass a policy that could change again in the next few months.

But on Tuesday, Cordeiro focused his energy on Burns’ school autonomy stance, asking if she stood by that. Burns replied her position remained the same, to which Cordeiro asked:  “So you support using taxpayer funds to purchase the books in question?”

Burns didn’t immediately answer. Smith chimed in saying the board should not turn the issue into the Salem Witch Trials and encouraged civility. The exchange only got more heated. 

Continuing to push for the board to pass the amendments, Cordeiro, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, compared the issue to a life or death emergency. 

“When a Marine is hurt on the battlefield and he’s bleeding out, you don’t say, ‘Well I want to find out if he needs a heart replacement or a liver replacement or whatever the case is before you do what’s needed in an urgent situation,” Cordeiro said. “You take action.”

Cordeiro then read passages from the novels. He first recited from “Thirteen Reasons Why”:

“Your fingers made their way under my bra. You didn’t grab me. Testing the boundaries I guess. Sliding your thumb along the underside of my breast. ‘Weren’t you on that list?’ you said. ‘Best ass in the freshman class.’ Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears. Does that kind of shit turn you on, Bryce? Yes, it does. ‘It’s true,’ you said. And just like that, I let go. My shoulders went limp. My legs fell apart. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

Cordeiro followed up with another passage: 

“‘Just relax,’ he said. ‘Everything will be okay.’ As if letting him finger me was going to cure all of my problems. But in the end, I never told you to get away. And you didn’t. You stopped rubbing circles on my stomach. Instead you rubbed back and forth, gently along my waist. Your pinky made its way along the top of my panties and rolled back and forth from hip to hip. Then another finger slipped below, pushing your pinky further down, brushing it through my hair. And that’s all you needed Bryce. You started kissing my shoulder. My neck. Sliding your fingers in and out. And that kept you going. You didn’t stop there. I’m sorry, is this getting too graphic for some of you? Too bad.”

He then went into a sex scene in “A Court of Mist and Fury”:

“He palmed by breast, his thumb flicking over my nipple. I cried out. And he buried himself in me with a mighty stroke. For a moment, I was nothing. No one. Then we were fused. Two hearts beating as one and I promised it would always be that way as he pulled out a few inches, the muscles of his back flexing beneath my hands, then slammed back into me, again and again.” 

No one tried to stop Cordeiro and remained silent during the readings.

“If you were to put these scenes in a movie, it would become an R-rated film without question,” Cordeiro said.

Afterward, Burns asked why Cordeiro didn’t pick up the phone and call her if he really wanted to reach a compromise or understand her position. Cordeiro said he took his fellow board member at her word.

Having to speak louder to be heard over Cordeiro’s interruptions, Burns made an argument for parents’ rights.

“You’re forgetting some of the other things that I’ve said because I also believe that whenever we have parents on these committees, we are giving parents an absolute skin in the game to make decisions about the material that’s in our schools,” Burns said. 

She accused Cordeiro of twisting her words, noting her intention is never to expose children to “pornographic readings” like Cordeiro just subjected the audience to.

Smith butted in again to stress decorum.

“I don’t think this is a gotcha time,” he said. “It’s a shame that this has become such a political gotcha game.”

Board member Brent Springer then reminded the audience that he was the one to ask the district to review the 42-book list. He questioned if the school choosing to keep the book was following the same standards set forth by the district. 

“It looks like one middle school is going to be the lost puppy, if you will,” Springer said. “I’m not going to name which middle school it is, and they’ve got their own philosophies over there and that’s fine.”

Hall questioned why the books were ever ordered in the first place and if the district’s policies were effective.

“This stuff has gone on and on and on and on, and quite frankly it’s so damn confusing that nobody can remember, OK you did this, then you did that then,’” Hall said. 

Cordeiro expressed confusion as well, but between the weeding process and book challenge process. Per policy, the two procedures have different review committees. 

Weeding, as what happened with the 42 books earlier in the year, is initiated by library staff to keep collections relevant. They weed for qualities other than appropriateness, checking the book’s accuracy, physical condition, and popularity. Challenges are initiated by parents and the review committee is tasked with examining the parents’ claim against the book. District staff clarified no book has been challenged, including from the 42-itemed list. 

Director of Digital Learning and Media Craig Lawson clarified to the board the district facilitates every school’s review of the 42 books and allowed each school to make a decision per district policy. He also said he believed, to the best of his knowledge, the policies for adding the books were followed. Superintendent Brad Breedlove clarified some of the books may predate the current procedures.

Cordeiro saw the need for more clarity, however, and motioned for the policy committee to create a policy outlining the weeding process and reexamine another policy, selection of instructional materials. 

Hall also expressed frustration with having to dredge up settled policies due to the Parents’ Bill of Rights. 

“I don’t want some bureaucrat in Raleigh at the Department of Public Instruction or a state legislator who has never been to Pender County before, who I could quite frankly care less about and he could quite frankly care less about us as well, to dictate our policy,” Hall said. “But they are the law. If they pass it, they are the law.” 

The board ultimately chose to refrain from passing the amendments to policy 3210 and voted to review them again before the next meeting. 

Springer brought forth the motion to remove “Thirteen Reasons Why” and “A Court of Mist and Fury.” 

“If a parent wants to let their child check this garbage out, they send a permission slip home to allow them to check the material out … that way I’m not violating anyone’s little rights,” Springer said. 

The motion passed unanimously.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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