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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

41 books will come off Pender County Schools shelves while they undergo review

Works by Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, Aldous Huxley and Kurt Vonnegut are among authors whose books are on a list of 41 under review by Pender County Schools. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

PENDER COUNTY — Pender County Schools administration has been asked to put a list of more than three dozen books through its internal review process at the behest of the school board.

Among the 42, one of which the district does not own, are classics including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The books will be removed from school library shelves and put in the custody of librarians during the review process.

READ MORE: NHCSB recap: Seclusion rooms and explicit books out, student career exposure in

A report to determine the results of the review will be delivered to the board next month.

Board member Brad George — who will vacate his seat after being tapped to join the Pender County Board of Commissioners — said he does not want to hold the books hostage if they are deemed appropriate by the committee. But the board agreed to receive a report on the issue first.

The books have not been challenged by parents, according to the school district. Rather, on Tuesday school board member Brent Springer made the motion to remove the reads as they undergo review.

The director of digital learning and media, Craig Lawson, told the board the district’s media advisory committee already takes material it is reviewing off shelves. The district typically only has one or two copies of a particular work, he added. 

During a presentation, chair Ken Smith asked board attorney Brandon McPherson if it would be legally permissible to pull the books while they are under review, which McPherson confirmed.

Port City Daily reached out to Smith for comment but did not hear back by press. 

The board unanimously voted in favor of Springer’s motion.

Most of the novels on the list have faced controversy and calls for banning due to sexual or violent content in the past. In 2014 “The Bluest Eye” was banned from East Wake High School along with Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” not on the Pender County list.

Other books that were included in Pender were released within the past five years. Some address LGBTQ issues or were written by LGBTQ authors.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” is a 2019 book written for adults and received an Alex Award — an annual recognition for 10 books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.” The book has found its way into school libraries and subsequently been banned in a few-dozen school districts.

Alamance-Burlington Schools removed the book from one of its high schools in September.

It was included on the list, but Lawson said the book is not in Pender district’s collections.

Earlier in the meeting the board faced criticism and some compliments from speakers on both sides of the issue.

Mike Korn is one of a group of people who has been pushing for some books to be removed from district libraries based on claims they are pornographic and promote transgender youth or violence. During Tuesday’s public comment period, Korn commended the board for taking up the list for review.

“I was complimentary of them because they finally earned it,” Korn said in a followup conversation with PCD.

His concerned informal group was ignored by the board about a year ago, Korn said, but now members are paying attention. His group has identified about 100 books in Pender County Schools as questionable. They also receive information from North Carolina book-banning organization, Pavement Education Project.

Pavement maintains a repository of books it labels as “obscene.” Korn claims the books are not protected by the First Amendment and pass a pair of obscenity tests: the test outlined in North Carolina General Statutes and the Miller Test.

Obscenity tests are famously difficult to pass. The test was created in 1973, but proving material is obscene has become more of a hurdle as indicated by later court decisions.

The Miller Test assesses:

  • Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standard,” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
  • Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value

Among other issues raised during the public comment period were concerns about material promoting the changing of gender identity to students, “racial controversy” and books promoting violence.

“Assassination Classroom,” a Japanese graphic novel series, was named by speakers twice and described as a work that educates students on how to kill their teachers. The premise of the series is a classroom of misfit students continually making plans to assassinate a world-destroying octopus — who is also their teacher — to save humanity.

When asked if Korn had read the books, he admitted he had not. He said he became aware of them through Pavement and saw images showing students with weapons.

When pressed on whether he believes the absurd premise of “Assassination Classroom” truly promotes violence, he shot back questioning whether it has any educational value.

Three call-in comments opposed removing books. They cited the practice as ineffective for shielding children from difficult topics, called it a disservice to their education, as well as lodged complaints that banning books is racist and homophobic.

Five people spoke in favor of banning books during public comment and eschewed the idea their positions are based on homophobia.

Burgaw resident Penelope Trammel, who also attended Pender County schools, is a parent to one of its next generation of students. She said in her call-in message: 

“I’m very concerned about the trend toward banning books from our community, our libraries and our schools. It’s one thing to consider whether or not something is age-appropriate but censoring, just because you don’t agree with the ideas, is basically the same thing as censoring our children’s minds. Taking away their rights to make their own decisions. Taking away their right to explore and see themselves represented in different literature. I know that a lot of the books carry some heavy subjects — subjects we’re worried that our children can’t handle, but for some of our children those subjects are things they face every single day and they deserve to see themselves represented.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Smith made a point of stating the schools are an open book and not hiding anything in its curriculum. He offered a rebuttal to anyone questioning the board’s fairness at the close of the meeting, using a metaphor to Aretha Franklin’s famed hit, “Respect,” released on Valentine’s Day 55 years ago.

“I thought about this day, Feb. 14, 1967,” Smith said. “We as teachers and board members and administrators do respect our students. One of the charges that’s been made out in the community that I find and take very personal is that we target people that have a different ideology than we do. I want to tell you, first and foremost, that is not the case. Because every student, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of the amount of money in their mom and dad’s bank account, we will give them the same equal educational opportunity of any student. And that I will stand behind and I will say this with my dying breath: We will continue to do that and fight for every student regardless of who they are. I do take exception that someone would think we are doing anything other than that.”

The removed books are going through the same internal review process the district uses to weed out material from its collection on a regular basis. Weeding is a normal part of maintaining a physical library; outmoded science text and heavily damaged books are some of the first to go.

Material is evaluated on its educationally suitability, if it is age and grade-level appropriate and if it is “pervasively vulgar.”

But Lawson clarified the district can accommodate a request by the board during review. Springer confirmed at the meeting a permission slip from a parent could be sufficient for a student to check out one of the books that are in the midst of being evaluated.

This review process is separate from the one outlined in the board’s policy 3210. The policy allows parents to object to material and have it reviewed by a building-level administration, the media coordinator, the lead teacher from each grade and parent volunteers from each grade.

If the committee returns the material in question to the classroom, a parent can appeal for a district-level review within a week of the decision. The only challenge the district has received under the policy was for the 2016 novel “Scythe,” which contains violent content. In that case, the challenge failed and the parent did not appeal the decision.

Here is the full list of books under review, including digital editionns of some titles:

“Brave New World”
“A Court of Mist and Fury”
“A Court of Silver Flames”
“A Court of Thorns and Roses”
“A Court of Thorns and Roses” (ebook)
“All Boys Aren’t Blue”
“All the Thing We Do in the Dark”
“Are You My Mother”
“Boy Girl Boy”
“Cemetery Boys”
“Cemetery Boys” (ebook)
“Darius the Great Deserves Better”
“Dreaming in Cuban”
“Empire of Storms”
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”
“Gender Queer”
“Go Ask Alice”
“I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club”
“Lawn Boy”
“Looking for Alaska”
“Looking for Alaska” (ebook)
“Me Earl and the Dying Girl”
“None of the Above”
“Out of Darkness”
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (DVD)
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (ebook)
“Rethinking Normal”
“Slaughterhouse Five”
“Speak” (audiobook)
“Speak” video recording
“Speak: The Graphic Novel”
“The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian”
“The Art of Racing in the Rain”
“The Black Flamingo”
“The Bluest Eye”
“Thirteen Reasons Why”
“Thirteen Reasons Why” ebook
“This One Summer”
“What Girls Are Made Of”
“When I Was the Greatest”

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