Monday, July 15, 2024

School board temporarily bans book on American racism from NHCS classrooms

In a 4-3 vote by the NHCS board, ‘Stamped’ will not be taught in classrooms but will remain in the libraries after a four-hour hearing was held Friday. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A parent’s months-long battle to restrict student access to a book on America’s history of racism has proven successful. 

READ MORE: Parents debate what and how NHCS students should learn about racism, removal of ‘Stamped’

The New Hanover County Board of Education voted 4-3 to temporarily ban Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” on Friday. The removal will stay in effect until the board updates its policies on supplementary materials and can choose what some members called “a balanced book” to add to the syllabus. 

Parent Katie Gates challenged “Stamped” after it was included in her daughter’s AP Language and Composition syllabus at Ashley High School last school year. 

In her initial December complaint, Gates claimed the book is “rooted in untruths about our nation and from a twisted and biased perspective on American History,” and unfit for classroom instruction. Ashley’s media review committee didn’t agree; they found the book was educationally suitable for the class. That decision was upheld by the district when Gates appealed. 

Yet, the parent appealed again and this time it went before the school board — an unprecedented event. 

The hearing lasted four hours, with board members asking questions, the district providing insight on the book in the curriculum and Gates presenting her case as to why it should not be allowed in the classroom. 

The four board members responsible for its removal — Chair Pete Wildeboer, Vice Chair Pat Bradford, Josie Barnhart and Melissa Mason — argued “Stamped” is unsuitable in the AP classroom. 

Per legal standard outlined in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, boards of education cannot remove titles based on content or for political motives, but can under the following three circumstances: 

  • It’s educationally unsuitable
  • It’s pervasively vulgar
  • It’s inappropriate to the age, maturity, or grade level of the students

The standards do not apply to library books, which must meet higher thresholds of inappropriateness. Gates clarified she did not want to remove the book from libraries, a change from her previous demands, but did think it belonged in  all classrooms, not just AP courses — another change from previous statements. 

Gates’ argument on Friday centered around several major claims, including the book was chosen based on its content rather than its use for rhetorical analysis, which is the purpose of the class. The parent also complained: the book’s sources are misused and unreliable; it is not good at preparing AP students for the exam; and its inclusion did not go through the proper approval channels. 

Ultimately, the Republican board members agreed with most of Gates’ claims. Each member took particular issue with the book, but all stated their vote was not based on personal beliefs or opinions of the text. 

“Stamped,” published in 2020, follows the evolution of racist ideas from 1415 to present, examining how those ideas have been used to uphold power structures in America.

Both Wildeboer and Bradford claimed the book and class were not balanced enough. 

Gates argued it was brainwashing students to make white kids feel bad because of slavery and responsible for America’s history of racist acts. She stated the book’s chronology of racist ideas went beyond argument and into propaganda. 

She has called the book anti-American, Marxist, claims it teaches critical race theory and presents extreme views. 

However, district representative and Assistant Superintendent for Technology and Digital Learning Dawn Brinson reminded the board the book’s role in the class was for students to analyze the authors’ rhetoric, not content. This was stated on the course’s syllabus and enshrined in AP code that students are never expected to subscribe to any views presented.

Still, Bradford contended most of the questions presented on its assignments were “content-based.”

“We want to teach history, we want to teach racism, but this is supposed to be about speech and composition,” Bradford said. “We’re mixing things and it shouldn’t be.”

Wildeboer mainly questioned if the book falls in line with policy 3200, which says materials “must be chosen to represent various points of view on controversial issues.” He took this to mean material must show both sides, thus making “Stamped” too biased. 

Brinson stated the policy refers to the course as a whole, noting it is rare to find books used to analyze arguments that present both sides. She also read a list of other readings included in the class, such as  Mitch McConnell’s Jan. 6 speech, FDR’s declaration of war, Martin Luther King’s letters from jail, and Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address.

Still, the board chair claimed the book violated the district’s fairness standards. 

“Maybe in the school as a whole there’s balance, which is great, but do we have that balance in this classroom? And I don’t see it,” Wildeboer said. 

Gates also remarked Ashley had the lowest AP scores in the district and only 1 in 5 district students made a 4 or 5 on the exams (the grading scale runs from 1 to 5).

Brinson countered such, explaining Ashley’s AP Language and Composition class had a 63% pass rate, making the scores 9% higher than the other four high schools. 

Also representing the district, Superintendent Charles Foust, noted the UNC system takes scores of 3, 4, and 5 to gain college credit. 

Mason, who campaigned last year on addressing “inappropriate” literature in the school system, claimed there are better alternatives to “Stamped.”

“There are thousands upon thousands of books with this viewpoint, with this topic, that we can use instead of this,” she said. “This book has not been around very long; it has not been vetted. I know Lexile is not the key component, but I believe it should be a pretty important one when you’re dealing with an AP English class.” 

During Gates’ argument, she cited the book’s score of 1,000 on the Lexile scale, a tool used to match readers with books, articles and other leveled literary resources. Gates said high school AP student sources should be around 1,300L. 

Brinson countered again, noting academic rigor is often calculated not just on Lexile scores, but also the complexity of topics, character development and controversial material.

Brinson pointed out many other AP Language and Composition selections have lower Lexile scores, including Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (840L) and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (680L).

Gates called for a return to classic literature, of which the above titles would fall under, but specifically named “Paradise Lost” and “Catcher in the Rye.” The latter has a Lexile score of 750L, and both books have been on numerous banned books lists across the nation. 

Barnhart was concerned about how “Stamped” made it into the classroom, questioning the review methods used. Brinson clarified the media review committee assessed the book before ordering it for the collection. Because of that, the AP course teacher did not need to complete a quality review checklist to include “Stamped” in instruction. 

Pervasive throughout Gates’ and board members’ statements was confusion over the book’s purpose as a history book or a rhetorical device. In the course, students are tasked with cultivating their “understanding of writing and rhetorical arguments through reading, analyzing, and writing texts as they explore topics like rhetorical situation, claims and evidence, reasoning and organization, and style.” 

Gates took issue with the book’s usage of these devices during her opening statement. She homed in on what she viewed were the book’s factual inaccuracies, manipulation of source quotes and omission of important historical context. Both she and Bradford reported the book was hard to read. 

“I, frankly, had a very hard time reading ‘Stamped’ because of the diction of the incomplete sentences, the grammar and the poor writing style. It’s meant to appeal to a fifth-grade audience,” Gates said. 

The book is derived from Kendi’s original text “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas.” The scholar partnered with Reynolds, a children’s author, on the “remix” to make the information fascinating for young readers, 12 and up. 

“We thought that if young readers were excited to read this history book, then teachers and their parents and community members would rally around this book because we thought that people want our young people to be reading books — specifically, serious books about this nation’s history,” Kendi said in an August interview with Port City Daily. 

Despite many board members stating the book’s purpose was for rhetorical analysis, they criticized its approach on American history and called for additional books that presented opposing perspectives. 

Board members Stephanie Walker and Stephanie Kraybill both criticized banning or restricting the book because they said it would be infringing on the rights of other parents. No other parents have made official complaints about “Stamped,” according to Brinson. 

Kraybill asked Gates what gave her the right to direct what the whole county could read. Gates viewed her challenge as holding NHCS accountable to its policies and a way to give a voice to parents too scared to voice their opinion on the book. 

Walker asked Gates if her daughter would have been able to write a rhetorical critique of “Stamped” if she had not been given an alternative assignment.  

“I believe she could, absolutely,” Gates said. 

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