NEW HANOVER COUNTY — If there is one thing attendants of the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting could agree on Tuesday, it’s that the school district is in crisis.
However, they were deeply divided over how.
A hot topic at the meeting surrounded book-banning. The board held a discussion at the behest of member Melissa Mason, who has proposed a districtwide book review committee.
Mason’s plan would establish a 10-person committee with one school board member liaison — not allowed to vote and chosen by the board chair. Also included would be one teacher of any grade level, one media specialist from any school that’s also non-voting, and seven parent representatives or other county residents.
An online application would be created and participants would be chosen on a first-come first-serve basis — no vote would be required by the school board. Once spots are filled, remaining sign-ups would be placed on a waiting list for the following semester. So a new committee would be established twice a year.
Any member who would like to continue serving on the committee again would need to resubmit an application and their name will be placed at the end of the waiting list.
The committee would review library selections, classroom picks and textbooks. These materials, some about LGTBQ characters or people of color, others with “graphic” violence or sexual content, have been targeted across the nation.
The New Hanover County school board has faced criticism for months over certain books, including “George,” which also goes by “Melissa,” about a transgender girl written by Alex Gino and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.
Mason did not clarify if this committee would replace or add to the district’s current policy, which already outlines a reconsideration for parents. If a parent has a problem with a specific book, they are first instructed to speak to their child’s teachers; if the problem remains, the parent can submit a reconsideration form to be reviewed by the school’s media and technology advisory committee. The group issues a decision, which can be appealed to the district, then to the school board.
Mason said the main difference with her committee and the current review process is community engagement.
“I really, really wanted the voices of our community heard,” Mason said, “as many as possible.”
Stephanie Kraybill responded to the proposal with a litany of questions, one of which was whether the committee would review the thousands of books within each library.
Mason admitted that was impossible; instead they could start with the 73-book grievance submitted to the district last fall.
The list came from Gail Major, the coordinator of NHC FACTS Task Force 2.0, a statewide right-wing organization highlighting civil and criminal laws its members claim are applicable to school literature. Titles include frequently challenged books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.
Board members Stephanie Kraybill, Hugh McManus and Stephanie Walker pushed back on Mason’s proposal, stating the board should not be swayed by a small political group over the desires of the district’s parents. They also pointed to the issue of parental rights, a concept campaigned on by the four elected Republicans — Pat Bradford, Josie Barnhart, Pete Wildeboer and Mason.
“We’re adding another layer of government control,” Kraybill said.
Vice chair Bradford argued it was the responsibility of the school district to not expose children to “age-inappropriate” or graphic content, and the decision for the book to be read outside the home can always be made by the parent. Bradford held up a book at the meeting and said it depicted a young girl being raped.
“There is no redeeming value of this book for middle school students,” Bradford said, amid scoffs and outbursts insisting rape happens to girls, even those in middle school.
Barnhart and Wildeboer homed in on the age-appropriateness factor.
“We looked and what we found out is middle schools across our district are following different protocols,” Barnhart said. “Some have restricted access, which goes against the best practices according to the American Library Association and American Association school libraries. I found that concerning.”
She explained one middle school’s media technology advisory committee could remove a book, but the other middle schools could still offer the book. Therefore, a districtwide review process could keep literature consistent across all levels.
Still, McManus was adamant the review committee would be detrimental to students and the majority of the district’s parents that want their child to have access to a wide array of content.
“You are taking away the rights of people to read what they want to,” McManus said. “I assume you will do away with the internet and cellphones? Because I can assure you they can pull up a heck of a lot more on a cellphone and they can in one book.”
Walker pointed out the United States Constitution protects the right to read books and NHCS has perfectly good policies in place for parents to voice concerns over school material.
In the last two years, there has only been one book challenged: “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” The book is set to be reviewed by the district after a parent appealed the school’s MTAC decision overruling the complaint. The book is part of Ashley High School’s AP English curriculum.
Boards of education largely possess the authority to control books taught in school curriculum. However, as Ken Paulson, a First Amendment professor and organizer of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, explained to Port City Daily last month, removing titles from libraries is more tricky.
“It’s important to remember that young Americans are born with constitutional rights,” Paulson told PCD. “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.”
School districts may remove books for legitimate reasons concerning child welfare and if they have an unibased process in place to do so; however, they cannot censor certain beliefs.
Censorship is exactly what some members of Tuesday’s audience were accusing the school board of doing; 11 people spoke against the review committee or banning books in general.
“Why don’t you call it for what it is — book challenging in hopes of book banning?” Deanna Tirrell said. “[You’re jumping] directly to circumvent the policies that are rooted in a person’s constitutional rights and parental rights that four of you built your platform on.”
Multiple speakers pointed to historical examples of banning books, namely the Nazi regime. Betsy Albright cited the 1926 German law targeting “trash” and “dirt” material.
“It was intended to protect children and young people from dangerous and allegedly permissive literature,” Albright said. “Congratulations on wanting to set up your Nazi review boards here in New Hanover County.”
However, those in favor of the committee continued to mandate they were not advocating for book removals, claiming some material was too inappropriate to be provided by district libraries.
“They’re not just obscene, they are mental anguish, incest, and it goes on and on,” Major said at the meeting. “We also have children that are Black. They’re being shown as molesters. We have things in these books that they’re showing as molesters, so don’t tell me that I have a prejudice.”
Other audience members speaking in favor of removing titles claimed the school’s library offerings and curriculum were pushing socialism, anti-Christain beliefs, anti-American sentiment, and a New World Order, a conspiracy theory that claims there is a secret totalitarian world government controlling societal decisions.
Some of those in favor of book removal argued rising teen suicide rates and mental health concerns were a symptom of a secular school system and exposure to dark content.
“Evil wants to destroy our children and we will reap what we sow,” Karen Clark said in her comments to the board.
Those on the other side of the issue pushed back.
“The year is 2023 and the top priority is banning books,” former school board candidate Dorian Cromartie said. “I’m a Christain myself, but the Bible has incest, murder, rape.”
Cromartie stated the real issue before the board was the district’s budget. They pointed to this year’s proposed budget containing the removal of some guidance counselor, social worker, interventionists and other support roles, along with a number of teachers and teacher assistants.
Employees, who will be offered a commensurate position in the district, are in positions that must be trimmed due to budget reduction or were part of the federal ESSR grants, soon to expire. Superintendent Charles Foust explained the cuts were necessary because the district is receiving less money and paying more for salaries and benefits.
“[It’s] much like moving from a Rolls Royce to a Cadillac,” he said.
Foust made it clear the prior board knew ESSR funds would expire, yet chose to fund support positions anyway, despite his pushback. Now, the district must deal with the consequences.
Some board members expressed concern over reducing support positions.
“Just because funding goes away, just because Covid is supposedly over, that doesn’t mean that the issues are gone away,” Walker said.
McManus said he didn’t understand why the board agreed to supply over $200,000 to the e-sports team — which the board approved to begin last month — instead of positions. That tranche of money used was for capital needs — not from the general fund to pay salaries, Foust clarified.
Kraybill asked if the district could use ESSR III to fund the support roles for another year. While the district has set aside a small pot to be used for employees yet to transition to another position, it would be unlawful to use the money for anything other than what is specified. Additionally, ESSR III expires in September.
Still, a handful of board members advocated for a way to keep some positions as the board finalizes its budget.
As far as the book-review committee, Mason assured the board her proposal was just a first draft and feedback was needed to flesh out the details further.
Still, some sort of committee can be expected as the board most likely has four votes in favor of it, when including Republican chair Wildeboer, who has served on NHCS since 2020.
“If you’ll just go ahead and call for a vote and we’ll see what happens,” McManus said. “Because I don’t want to sit here and argue with everybody and listen to the same people stand up and say the same thing over and over and over.”
No vote was taken and the item will undergo reworking before it returns to the board.
Editor’s Note: The article has been updated to correct the author name, Sherman Alexie, of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” PCD regrets the error.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.