Wednesday, April 24, 2024

7 books to be removed so far in Pender schools, removal list originated with Durham advocacy group

A graph showing book data for 42 reviewed books in Pender County Schools.

PENDER COUNTY — Per a yet-to-be-complete book review initiated last month, Pender County Schools will remove at least seven books from its school libraries. 

On Tuesday night, PCS Director of Digital Learning and Media Craig Lawson updated the school board on its February directive to investigate 42 books. Lawson shared the review, conducted by committees of school staff, parents and students, is 86% complete. Four schools — three of which are middle — chose to remove at least one book from the list; however, more removals could be coming as the review is completed in the next month.

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

Out of the district’s 17 traditional schools, only 10 offer the listed books, which include frequently challenged titles like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” 

The Media and Technology Advisory Committee at Burgaw Middle will remove “Brave New World,” a classic 1930s novel by Aldous Huxley set in a futuristic dystopia where the state uses technology and medical innovations to control its citizens. 

Also to be removed is Patricia McCormick’s “Sold,” which follows a Nepalese girl sold into sexual slavery, and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” the most challenged book of the last decade for its depictions of alcohol, violence and sexuality in the life of a 14-year-old Native American boy. The book will also be removed at Topsail Middle, along with Beatrice Sparks’ “Go Ask Alice” about a teenage girl’s drug addiction and Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain” about a race-car driver who believes his dog can be reincarnated. 

West Pender will ban Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” about a teen who commits suicide and the source material for the Netflix show of the same name. It was the third most-banned book of the last decade. 

Pender High School will ban Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury,” the second book of a popular fantasy series targeted for its violence and language. 

At the school board meeting, Lawson did not explain the reasoning for the books’ removal. Port City Daily is waiting on a response to a request for that information upon asking Wednesday. 

Lawson explained to the school board the review process. He said his team first developed new internal weeding documentation which they then trained media coordinators on. Afterward, media coordinators met with each school’s committees and they used a checklist to determine the removal of a title. 

The checklist included information on how many times a book has been checked out and if its information is out of date, inaccurate, poorly presented or “unsuitable to the population” or “no longer relates to the curriculum.” It also includes an assessment of the book’s physical condition.

When school board members questioned Lawson on the removals, the director said he didn’t know about each situation. Yet, he specifiedone book was removed because it hadn’t been checked out in five or seven years, the customary range for testing a book’s desirability, Lawson said. 

Board chair Ken Smith said Lawson’s presentation proved the board was not “cherry-picking” books to ban. 

“This is not that we’re on some wild sort of witch hunt,” Smith said. “This is not a book-banning, book-burning process. This is a review that needed to be done.”

Board member Brent Springer made the motion to remove the books while they underwent review at the school board’s February meeting. 

Mike Korn, a vocal critic of many of the listed books he considers “obscene” and “pornographic,” told Port City Daily he was the one to submit the list of 42 books to Springer. 

“He’s our buddy,” Korn said. “I spoke to him several times, but I spoke to everybody on the school board.” 

Springer did not return a request for comment by press. 

PCD asked Korn how he compiled the list of books. He and his advocacy group, Concerned Citizens of Pender County, partnered with Pavement Education Project, a Durham-based “nonpartisan” group geared toward alerting parents to obscene books and materials in public schools. 

“[W]hat they have been doing is, they have been reading the books that we have been looking at and typing up excerpts from these books, and putting them in a format that we could understand better,” Korn said. “They rated these books, like something like a movie rating system, one to five, five being extremely bad books in school and one being objectionable.” 

Korn, who has been pushing the board to investigate allegedly obscene material for more than a year, said he has met with Pavement members multiple times to discuss his concerns. Last month, he admitted to PCD he had not read the books. 

While the books underwent the same weeding process Lawson explained is routine for media coordinators, internal emails show an inventory titled “Pavement Project Book List” was in review since Jan. 6, before Springer’s request. 

An email from Lawson to Assistant Superintendent for Human Capital and Accountability Kevin Tayor on Jan. 7 states: 

“In reference to the discussion we had today at the graduation concerning the Pavement Project list that Mr. Ken Smith showed me, I wanted to ensure you had access to this spreadsheet that Bob [Fankboner, communications coordinator] and I worked on for Dr. Bracy [former interim superintendent]. It includes information on whether we have the book, where it is located, how many copies, when it was added to the media centers, and the circulation statistics.” 

Lawson also directed the school review committees to prioritize books on a list labeled “Pavement Project Book Check,” taken from the group’s website, on Jan. 27. 

“If you have books on this list at your school, start there for your review,” Lawson wrote.

Emails revealed details of the new weeding process, including the stipulations in the checklist and a requirement that new purchases would need Media and Technology Advisory Committee approval. Per meetings with media coordinators, Lawson wrote there was a need for both district guidance and individual school-level collection development plans, or how library items are chosen.

While the reasons for the books’ removal is still unclear, Korn said it’s a win for his fellow activists.

“They’re doing exactly what we asked them to do,” Korn said. 

Though he doesn’t have a child currently in Pender schools, Korn said he is speaking up for the “all the parents that are scared to death to even say something because they’ll be ostracized.” 

Thirteen parents spoke up at the Tuesday school board meeting, all against the board’s “book-banning” moves, among them former PCS media coordinator Angela Perry.

“I am very disturbed at the trend toward banning books this county has taken,” Perry said. “The job of a media coordinator is to support the entire student body.”

Monica Martin, the mother of a transgender student, criticized the board for targeting books with LGBTQ characters, such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “Melissa” which now goes by the title “George” by Alex Gino.

“You are removing books that them and other children have access to that aren’t causing any harm,” Martin said. 

There has only been one challenge to a book by a parent in PCS this school year — “Scythe” by national book-award winner Neil Shusterman. In that case, which followed a different review process than the weeding system, the challenge failed and the parent did not appeal the decision.

First Amendment complications

Korn and other advocates for book tribunals argue the listed 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, famously hard to pass due to the stipulation the book must lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Ken Paulson, a First Amendment professor and organizer of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, clarified to PCD the Supreme Court gives school boards some latitude to remove titles from libraries.

In 1982, the court issued a convoluted set of opinions in Island Trees School District v. Pico regarding a New York school district’s attempt to remove nine books per a parent group complaint. Yet, the case is often interpreted to limit a school district’s ability to remove books from school libraries.

“The Pico case concluded that books can be removed from school libraries for legitimate reasons that have to do with the children’s welfare and education, but they may not be removed for political reasons,” Paulson said. 

Essentially, the First Amendment protects against the government’s discrimination of ideas. In the Pico case, the court determined districts had to have a process in place to review and potentially remove material and books could not be removed arbitrarily.

“It’s important to remember that young Americans are born with constitutional rights,” Paulson said. “They’re not as strong when you’re 5 years old as they will be when you’re 21 — but they exist. And removing books in the libraries for the wrong reasons violates their constitutional rights as citizens.” 

However, Paulson explained school boards do have more authority to dictate books that are part of curriculum, and that most challenges to a removal from classroom teachings fail due to a board of education’s right to oversee curriculum. 

Because Pender County Schools has outlined a process for review, Paulson said it sounds like the district is “on the right track,” despite his stance against removing books.

“I’m a college professor and I see so many students who are lacking in their reading and writing skills,” Paulson said. “[We] should be very careful about discouraging young people from going to the library.”

However, he added books do not need to be rounded up in mass — like the 42 in Pender — to be reviewed, and instead, should be removed for the week they are being reviewed and returned to the shelf when read.

“It’s not a minor thing for this for the government to decide that these books may not be checked out by anyone until we figure out if they’re dangerous,” Paulson said. 

The calls for book removals  in Pender County Schools — and in the larger Cape Fear region — reflects nationwide efforts to censor books in school libraries. According to research done by PEN America, nearly 140 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2,500 books during the 2021/2022 school year, with large portions of the banned titles involving LGBTQ characters, people of color, or race or racism subjects. 

The freedom of expression advocacy group also found 20% of all book bans over the past year were directly linked to the actions of Republican lawmakers or conservative parent groups, with an additional 30% with evidence of the groups’ influence. 

Korn said he and fellow advocates would continue to alert school officials of obscene materials and call for their reevaluation in Pender County and elsewhere. Already, they have spoken against certain books at New Hanover County school board meeting. He added they were looking at other issues, such as social emotional learning.

“Books is just the beginning of it,” Korn said.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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