As the school year starts, districts prepare for onslaught of book challenges by conservatives
Authors of color are targeted, as well as books about the LGBT community
Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the country are seen at the U.S. Capitol in March 2023 in Washington, D.C. Several states have enacted laws aimed at giving parents control over or banning explicit sexual materials from classrooms. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
North Carolina has become what demographers and political pundits call a minority-majority system of public schools. That means nonwhite students outnumber their white counterparts.
This new dynamic, says Michelle Burton, a veteran school library media specialist with Durham Public Schools, has fueled a backlash against what’s taught about America’s racist past, as well as reading materials that school libraries make available to children.
Despite the fact that most children attending the state’s public schools are Black and Latinx, conservative parents and activists are fighting to restrict access to books written by authors of color and members of the LGBTQ community, Burton said.
“We want to go back to not providing people access to knowledge and the opportunity to learn about themselves, “Burton said. “We want to go back to a time when people of color were hidden.”
Educators will likely to start passing over books by authors of color for fear that sharing them with students might lead to controversy, she said.
“They’re [authors of color] writing from their perspective and their stories resonate with children of color,” Burton said. “For some folks, that bothers them. That’s troubling, because they want to go back to an old way of being. They want every kid to read Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary or Encyclopedia Brown.”
Burton has worked as a media specialist for more than 25 years She is the former president of the Durham Association of Educators and an appointed director of the NC School Library Media Association where she focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
Books bans might have been effective in the past, she said, but are now a fool’s errand due to advances in technology.
“Trying to censure every little bit of reading materials that come into the library is going to be ineffective because our kids have the internet, they have YouTube,” Burton said.
Parents have the right to decide which books their children read, Burton acknowledged. They shouldn’t, however, be allowed to dictate which books other parents allow their children to read, she said.
“I think there are some white parents who would like to think that everyone thinks the way they do,” Burton said. “But there are different perspectives and that’s why we’re getting this backlash.”
Book bans have been a major topic of discussion at school boards across the state this year. WUNC radio reported in March that there have been 189 book challenges across North Carolina’s 115 school districts since 2021.
NC Newsline asked several school districts if teachers and librarians have received instruction this summer about how to select books to share with students. Those that responded said that educators already have guidance available in school policy, which allows parents to challenge selections.
“Parents have the right to challenge any books or curriculum or lesson that their child is learning in the classroom through the board policy manual,” said Russell Clark, a spokesman for New Hanover County Schools.
After a challenge is made, it is sent to a school level review committee, which decides whether to continue using the material, Clark said. Parents may select an alternate assignment for their child or make a district-level appeal. If still not satisfied, a parent may ask the local board of education to step in.
The New Hanover County school board is currently weighing whether to ban the book “Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You” by Ibram X Kendi and Jason Reynolds after a parent complained about the book. “Stamped” exams ways to identify and eliminate racist ideas.
Earlier this month, the Wake County Board of Education revised its policy for selecting books, stating they cannot be “pervasively vulgar.” That decision came after a growing number of complaints from conservative parents and activists about books that allegedly expose children to sexual content, promote a LGBTQ lifestyle or criticize whites for their part in America’s racist past.
On Tuesday, the school board was expected to adopt revisions to district policy for reviewing challenges to instruction materials and library books.
Republican-backed Senate Bill 90 sent shockwaves through school districts last month. The bill was initially introduced to address student searches, but was revised to include multiple provisions, such as requiring youth to get parental permission to obtain a library card and mandating teachers to notify parents if a student questions their gender.
A provision in SB 90 would require schools that contract with book fair vendors to review all materials made available to students to determine if they meet the standards set forth in the law. That bill language quickly caught the attention of educators who fear that its passage could school end book fairs.
“It would change the work we do with students drastically,” Burton said of SB 90. “It will make us ineffective. We will not be able to perform our roles as providers of information.”
Wake County parent Renee Sekel, tweeted this statement shortly about the bill revision was introduced last month: “Reading the gut-and-amend version of S90, and it’s cartoonishly bad. I’ll do a thorough thread later, but some things I’ve noticed off the bat: functionally eliminates the book fair by requiring a prior review of all books to be sold.”
To determine whether selected books meet community standards under state law, a principal or designee must consider whether:
- An adult applying contemporary community standards would find the material or performance has a predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest of minors in sex.
- The average adult applying contemporary community standards would find that the depiction of sexually explicit nudity or sexual activity in the material or performance is offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community concerning what is suitable for minors.
- The material or performance lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
SB 90 was a late session pile on, topping several controversial Republican-backed bills that will likely change public education in North Carolina for decades. Other bills include expanding “school choice” by further empowering charter schools, restricting what students in early grades can be taught about sex education, and requiring school officials to notify a parent if a student changes names or pronouns. The bills passed, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed them. It is expected lawmakers will try to override the vetos when the legislature reconvenes this month.
The provision in SB 90 that covers school libraries caused such an uproar that House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told reporters that lawmakers won’t likely take it up this session. “There needs to be a lot more discussion in our caucus,” Moore told reporters. “And we’ll have to see where the caucus comes down right now.”
For Michelle Burton, the Durham Public Schools’ librarian, the push by conservatives to return to a time when people of color were marginalized and denied basic rights conjures memories of talks with her father, who grew up in Fayetteville in the 1950s.
“My dad grew up in segregated North Carolina and he shared with me that he didn’t go to the library when he was a child because it was segregated,” Burton said. “One of the things he said to me — I grew up in Chicago — that he was really glad that his kids grew up in Chicago because we could go to the library.”
The push to ban books is a dangerous, she said, because it devalues people.
“If we don’t learn our history, if we don’t learn about different people, I believe we will go back to a time when Black people were hidden,” Burton said. “We’re currently doing that to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Some people want to go back to the America of 60 or 80 years ago, but people were being mistreated and discriminated against during that period.”
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