NC school board introduces draft of book ban, removal policy

Cabarrus County school board members say they want a more functional and transparent process when it comes to concerns over books that include questionable reading material for students.

But with two policies already in place, parents are leery board members will be forthcoming when it comes to decisions about banning books.

Board members during a meeting Monday night agreed books have “fallen through the cracks” despite some policies being in place, member Carolyn Carpenter said. One of those books, “Looking for Alaska,” an award-winning teen novel by John Green, has been at the center of drama between the board and hundreds of parents who believe the board will enact policies that make it easier to ban books and learning materials someone deems offensive.

The board discussed a draft policy Monday but made no decision. Instead, all seven board members decided a pair of committees dedicated to instructional materials and board policies should discuss the draft first.

The Literacy and Supplemental Materials Committee, composed of Superintendent John Kopicki, the board’s attorney and board members, central office staff, principals, three media specialists, teachers and parents, meets Tuesday night.

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Ellen Ivers, a parent of three children, speaks Monday during the Cabarrus County Board of Education meeting. A number of parents attended the meeting to speak out about a proposed policy to set aside media, including books, deemed inappropriate for all students. Screenshot from Cabarrus County Board of Education video

“When books are brought to us as a board, we need to have a solid place and process in order to get those books looked at,” Vice Chair Laura Blackwell said. “People need to understand that the reason why we do this and bring these up in these meetings is because we are required to have these conversations in public. Just because we put a policy out there, we’re not going to just approve it willy-nilly without discussion.”

Blackwell read an oral-sex scene aloud from “Looking for Alaska” at a public meeting last week and questioned whether that “kind of crap” is OK to be in schools. Prior to the excerpt, Chair Holly Grimsley ordered her teenage student interns to leave the meeting before the passage was read.

Parents (and non-parents) react

It all led to outcry from some parents.

“Based on my interactions with the staff of the school system, I believe they are some of the most qualified and competent people I’ve ever met,” Pam Everett, who wore a T-shirt that said “Read banned books,” told the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I believe they are wholeheartedly looking out for the best interest of my child. …I trust my educators.”

The Cabarrus County Board of Education is sending “a vote of no-confidence to educators,” Everett said.

“It seems to be a trend across the US where politically-motivated movements are telling the community to be weary of educators and librarians,” she said. “Is this the way to support our children’s education?”

Existing Cabarrus County school policy addresses how parents can raise concerns about particular books. But Grimsley said the policy doesn’t include non-parents.

“When it comes to ‘Looking for Alaska’, the person did not meet that criteria,” Grimsley said. “It’s still a very valid question.”

Konicki told the board no book has been reviewed in the last six years.

“The process that is or isn’t in place is not working,” he said.

‘Rights to have access to all books’

But hundreds of parents signed a letter — 277 signatures as of Monday afternoon — sharing concerns that the board intends to ban “Looking for Alaska” and that others have already been banned from the district’s school libraries. The group of parents also said it believes the board will enact policies that promote a lack of transparency in the process.

“I’ve always respected a parent/guardian’s ability to have a book reviewed if they didn’t want their child to have exposure to a particular book,” Christine Lampel, a Cabarrus County parent and member of the Literature and Supplemental Materials Review Committee , told The Charlotte Observer Monday. “At the same time, it’s my view that the district should protect the other student’s rights to have access to all books.”

Lampel said she did not agree with the decision to read an excerpt of the book last week, saying it only adds drama and division.

The group of parents that signed the letter alleged books such as “The Hate You Give,” “Poet X,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” were quietly removed from the curriculum and/or pulled off shelves in the spring of 2022.

But no books are banned in Cabarrus County Schools libraries, Philip Furr, director of communications and public information for the district, told the Observer Monday.

“I’m not in favor of book bans, removals or relocations in any circumstance because I trust the rigorous process by which books and other materials are initially brought into our schools by experts in the field of education,” parent Ellen Ivers told the board . “For two months myself and other parents have asked the school board to build trust and transparency in their book review process.”

Shanhe Liu, a 17-year-old senior at Northwest Cabarrus High School and one of the board’s interns who was asked to leave last week, told the Observer students should have a voice on the topic. She plans on reaching out to board members and letting them know what students have to say.

Book challenged “countless times”

“Looking for Alaska” was named the most complained about book of 2015 in America for its offensive language and sexually explicit descriptions, according to The Guardian. It’s been the subject of several attempts to ban it from school shelves since it was published in 2005. Districts in Tennessee, upstate New York, Idaho and Kentucky all previously considered removing it from school libraries.

More recently, a school board candidate and member of the conservative Moms for Liberty group in Orange County, Florida, told an Orlando news station that the book should be considered too “explicit” for school libraries.

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Laura Blackwell, vice chair of the Cabarrus County Schools board of education, holds up a copy of John Green’s 2005 “Looking for Alaska” during a meeting on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Blackwell read a passage from the book that depicted oral sex. Cabarrus County Schools via YouTube

Green said he’s used to the controversy surrounding his book.

“Looking for Alaska has been in print for 17 years, and it has been challenged countless times, but I’ve never seen anything like the concerted effort in 2022 to remove it and so many other books from libraries and schools around the country,” Green tweeted on Sept. 16.

In the same thread he tweeted: “The book isn’t pornography. Like, if you find the book arousing, I … really think you are reading it wrong.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools not immune

“Looking for Alaska” has caught the attention of parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, too.

Brooke Weiss, the chair of Moms for Liberty in Mecklenburg County, emailed interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and members of the school board Aug. 10 with concerns over the sexually-explicit passage in the book and that it’s in CMS middle and high school libraries.

Weiss said there needs to be a review process that involves reading the books before they make their way into district libraries.

She also said neither she nor Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization focused on parental rights in schools, are calling for the banning or even removal of books despite “the national assault on our organization.”

“We just want the books to be labeled as ‘mature’ and separated from the rest of the books that the entire school body has access to,” Weiss wrote in the email. “If a parent wants their child to have access to more mature content, then that is totally fine, but the wishes of parents that do not want their children to have access to such content should also be respected.”

Anna Maria Della Costa is a veteran reporter with more than 32 years of experience covering news and sports. She worked in Florida, Alabama, Rhode Island and Connecticut before moving to North Carolina. She was raised in Colorado, is a diehard Denver Broncos fan and proud graduate of the University of Montana. When she’s not covering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she’s spending time with her 11-year-old son and shopping.

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