Sunday, March 3, 2024

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

Pender County Schools approved a list of books to be removed from various libraries across the district. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

PENDER COUNTY — A local school district has completed its book review, prompted by protestors linked to conservative advocacy groups, and eight titles will be removed from some school libraries due to claims of inappropriate content. 

The review’s findings were submitted for Pender County school board approval on Tuesday. The summary noted the books were removed because they were unsuitable to the population, either because of “age or pervasive sexually explicit content.” All but one of the books are being removed from middle school libraries.

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

Board members approved the removals without discussion.

In March, PCS Director of Digital Learning and Media Craig Lawson updated the board on the “weeding process” of 42 books. Each title was reviewed by the schools’ Media and Technology Advisory Committees made up of school staff, parents and students.

Though board member Brent Springer made the motion to investigate the titles at February’s regular meeting, the list was submitted by resident and former sheriff candidate Mike Korn. Korn told Port City Daily he finds the books “obscene” and “pornographic.” 

Korn 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. 

The March update revealed seven titles would be removed across the district; one more has been added to the ban since — “Empire of Storms” by Sarah J. Mass found at Cape Fear Middle School. The book is the fifth in the best-selling “Throne of Glass” series about a teenage assassin in a corrupt kingdom with a tyrannical ruler, featuring graphic violence and death. The series’ second book, “A Court of Mist and Fury,” will be removed from Pender High School.

The review committees evaluated the books based on several criteria — how many times a book has been checked out and if its content is out of date, inaccurate, poorly presented or “unsuitable to the population” or “no longer relates to the curriculum.”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.

Despite the uniform checklist used by the committees, several books removed from middle school were kept elsewhere, demonstrating the often subjective nature of book content reviews. For example, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which follows a teen girl’s thirteen reasons why she killed herself, was removed from West Pender Middle, but will be retained at Topsail Middle. 

“Each school’s collection is separate, and it is designed to meet the specific needs of that school’s student population, staff, and community,” Fankboner said to PCD. “If a title is weeded at one particular school, that has no bearing on whether or not it is weeded from any of our other schools.”

He also noted only school board members have the power to remove a book from the entire district, stating “none of the titles reviewed have been banned in Pender County Schools.” 

Burgaw Middle School is removing three titles, including “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,” about 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 latter book was also doxxed for its lack of checkouts — none in five years.

Alexie’s book will be pulled from 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. 

These books, removed from middle schools, are recommended for high school readers. Pender County Schools spokesperson Bob Fankboner said they will be offered to the high schools who have the titles already approved by their MTAC or who approve the titles prior to the transfer.

Among the total 42 examined titles, several targeted by conservative voices in Pender County and across the border in New Hanover, were deemed suitable — such as “Melissa,” which now goes by the title “George,” by Alex Gino about a transgender fourth-grader and “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson about a high school freshman raped at a party.

However, many of the 42 titles were reported lost; “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut at Burgaw Middle, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison at Pender High and “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins are a few examples. Fankboner clarified the MATC will decide if they should be replaced. 

Several community members said they were not happy with the book-review process, a few deeming the effort “book banning.” One person claimed the review didn’t go far enough. Patricia Koluch, who has advocated for removing certain literature she described as a “cancer,” said she would pull her children out of the district. 

“I quit Pender County,” she said during the meeting. 

Despite the public comment complaints from a small group of community members, 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.

Port City Daily reached out to each board member asking for their thoughts on the removed books; Brent Springer, initiator of the book review, was the only one to respond by press. 

“Quite frankly I think that the books that are getting reviewed is a great step in the right direction,” Springer wrote in an email. 

As far as addressing future calls to review books, Springer said he does expect this. 

“I anticipate the authors of the books that were moved to be entered into [the] review process as well,” Springer said. “Request[s] will be based on a case-by-case basis.”

Saved by the bell

Though Pender County Schools officially joined the ranks of districts across the nation removing books from school shelves, the hot topic of Tuesday evening’s meeting was the proposed change to several schools’ bell schedules. 

District staff proposed three different start times for elementary, middle and high schools in the Topsail High and Heide Trask High feeder pattern. Many of the middle schools would begin school around 7 a.m., with elementary schools starting between 7:10 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., followed by the high schools at 8:15 a.m. 

Students will also get out earlier, beginning at 2 p.m. 

The schedule is aimed at “maximizing efficiency” of the school district’s transportation system by reducing costs and needed manpower for its buses. Essentially, Pender County Schools wants to use fewer buses to transport more students. 

Right now, the district has 12 routes where the bus driver is making double runs, causing some students to remain at school under supervision while waiting for the bus, also delaying their arrivals home. 

The double routes are due to a bus driver shortage, a problem many schools are facing across the state, including in neighboring New Hanover County. PCD asked the district how many bus drivers short it was, but did not receive an answer by press.

District staff shared two recent studies done by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Edulog, a school bus routing software company. Both found the only way for the district to alleviate the double routes with current resources would be to stagger bell times. 

Improving efficiency is also a top concern for the district; staff reported it loses state funding for every percentage drop below 100% efficiency, to the dismay of board member Phil Cordeiro. The district did not provide information on what efficiency it was at by press.

“If the standard is perfection, I don’t agree with that,” Cordeiro said. 

He suggested bringing the efficiency rule to the attention of Pender County House of Representatives member Rep. Carson Smith.

In a presentation, district staff noted there were some downsides to the bell schedule, mainly for families with children at different schools. 

Anne MacDonald, who has a student at Topsail High and Surf City Middle, spoke with PCD on Wednesday about her concerns.

“Really what it looks like is they’re sacrificing our students because of their inability to manage the growth and infrastructure of Pender County,” MacDonald said. “I mean, at this rate, why don’t we just send our kids to school at 5 a.m.? No one is on the road at 5 a.m.” 

The district plans to provide supervision for siblings waiting to start school after being dropped off. For PCS employees, whose kids will also be affected by the earlier start time, the district said their morning care will need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. 

MacDonald pointed out afterschool care is also an issue, now that middle schoolers will be getting out as early as 2 p.m. 

“Most of them go home or go to an afterschool sport or club, but for those that go home, they’re going to be home at 2:30 until five or six till their parents get home,” MacDonald said. “And you know, middle schoolers are mischievous. Is that really a good use of their time?”

Factoring in clubs, sports, homework and other responsibilities, MacDonald argues it will be impossible for middle schoolers to get enough sleep with the proposed bell schedule. 

“I’m going in the middle — my sixth grader would have to be in bed by 7:30 to get the CDC recommended number of hours of sleep per night,” MacDonald said, which is nine to 12. “Her softball games don’t start till 7:30.”

During the meeting, district staff claimed bus pickup times will only be 7 to 15 minutes earlier. 

The presentation was given under the information portion of the meeting, yet board members voted to take action after learning staff needed a decision as soon as possible to begin implementing changes. However, both board members Beth Burns and Ken Smith reported receiving many emails in the course of the meeting from parents concerned about the new schedule. 

The board ultimately decided to postpone its decision until next month to gather feedback from the community.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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