Thursday, July 25, 2024

NHCS to offer 30-minute public hearing to discuss book removal

The New Hanover County school board discussing a public hearing dedicated to book removal opinions at its July 25, 2023, agenda review meeting. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The subject of school book bans will get a dedicated, albeit shorter, public forum at next week’s New Hanover County board of education meeting. 

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

The school board decided to add 30 minutes to its call to the audience hour at its next meeting on Aug. 1. The vote followed board member Stephanie Kraybill’s motion to schedule a separate public hearing on the issue of removing books from school libraries. 

The board’s conservative majority was initially resistant to holding a separate public meeting. If one was to occur, board member Pat Bradford advocated for it to happen after the appeal hearing on “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” 

The book, written by anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi, is part of the A.P. Language and Composition curriculum at Ashley High School. Since last fall, parent Katie Gates has been pushing for the book to be removed from the curriculum and school libraries, despite her child being given a separate assignment per policy. 

The parent appealed the decisions to retain the book by Ashley’s media review committee — which ruled the book’s purpose was to analyze the author’s argument tactics — and the district. Her appeal will now go before the school board within the next month. 

Bradford said she feared the public would conflate the “Stamped” hearing with general thoughts on book removals — blaming the media in part for this confusion — and wanted to keep both issues separate.

Bradford made a motion to schedule the general public hearing on book selection after Gates’ appeal hearing, but the motion failed to receive a second. 

As board members Hugh McManus and Stephanie Walker have pointed out, Gates’ appeal is the first hearing of its kind and has the potential to set precedent for future book removal requests. 

“We’ve met with every level of the grievance committee, most librarians all the way to the top, and they all said it does not need to be banned,” McManus said. “Once we ban a book, we have an audience that comes, who has a list of [other] books to ban, which we have not addressed. This has been addressed, but not that list. That will be next.” 

For over a year, a small group of community members have submitted dozens of books for review, calling them “obscene” and “pornographic.” These members have included Mike Korn, Patricia Koluch, and others, most associated with far-right groups like Moms for Liberty and Pavement Education Project. Earlier this year, Korn led an effort to remove books like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” in Pender County. The district removed eight books from library shelves as a result. 

Board member Josie Barnhart noted the public has the opportunity to speak on this issue and any others at the board’s regular meeting. 

“It seems like, after my colleague’s speech, that the point of this hearing is to hear how we don’t want to ban books,” Barnhart said. “And so I’d like some clarity. Are we going to give equal opportunity for both, to hear having leveled books in our library and having accountability to what’s being taught, as well as not banning books, as you’re saying, or is the idea of this hearing just to talk about how we shouldn’t ban books?

Kraybill responded the forum would be open to people from all viewpoints on book removal.

Board chair Pete Wildeboer noted the board has taken unprecedented action before, citing censure votes and trespassing cases, without taking public input. He argued that allowing a separate public hearing would set another sort of precedent by setting expectations for a dedicated public hearing on every contentious vote going forward. 

Wildeboer did, however, say he would be in favor of extending public comment at their regular meeting, supported by board member Melissa Mason. In response, Kraybill posed a rhetorical question: “What are we afraid of for having people come and talk to us and give us their opinion?” 

In a stated effort to compromise, Kraybill said she would amend her motion to instead extend the call to the audience if it would improve the motion’s chances of passage. Sensing no clear support, the board member kept her original motion to schedule a public hearing before the Gates appeal. It failed 3-4, with Wildeboer, Mason, Barnhart and Bradford dissenting. 

Barnhart then made the motion to extend the Aug. 1 meeting’s call to the audience by 30 minutes. Walker said that would not be adequate time. 

“If we’re going to start restricting this, this feels like control,” Walker said. 

Still, the vote on Barnhart’s motion to add 30 minutes to public comment was unanimous. 

The book hearing will take place after the regular public comment. It will be conducted under the same lottery system for sign-ups and the public will be able to sign up for both comment periods. The regular comment period will remain open to any topic and the second will be dedicated to book removal opinions.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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