Unpacking the removal of 'Stamped' by the New Hanover County Board of Education
Last Friday, the New Hanover County Board of Education voted 4-3 to temporarily remove the book, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You," written by Jason Reynolds, adapted from the work of Ibram X. Kendi, from the district’s classrooms. But their motion allowed it to remain in high school libraries.
The board made their decision after a five-hour public hearing where 150 people showed up to listen to Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust and Assistant Superintendent Dawn Brinson argue against Katie Gates, a parent of a former Ashley High School AP Language and Composition student.
Gates alleged the book had no place in the school system’s classrooms because it promotes anti-American sentiment and disrespect for the Bible. The district countered that the book is an appropriate resource to use in a college-level course that teaches rhetoric and composition.
Republican Board Member Stephanie Kraybill’s first question to Gates was, “I’m wondering why you believe you have the right to dictate what the whole county can read — and not just what your child can read?”
Kraybill was referencing the fact that Gates’s daughter received an alternative assignment shortly after she complained to the teacher, Kelli Kidwell.
Throughout the hearing, board members worked through a host of issues related to the book's use in Kidwell's class — and some broader ideological issues.
Gates said in her opening statements that Ashley High School AP students had some of the lowest AP scores in the district — and that’s because educators like Kidwell teach from a “personal bias,” which meant, “the kids paid the price for their test scores.”
But later during the hearing, Foust responded, “So when looking at teacher results, we have to pay attention to highly effective, and we're talking about a resource that a teacher used to have the highest scores in the district; over 60% percent of her students received a 3 or a 4, and in the UNC system a 3 will get you college credit.”
Republican Board Member Josie Barnhart, too, brought up the low test score claim later in the hearing. Gates did say her daughter got a 4 on the exam but that was only due to her efforts.
Kidwell said in an interview with WHQR, “In the end, it's the kid in that room taking the exam, and they have to have the confidence in themselves, as well as the information I've given them throughout the year to take [it]. I can't take all the responsibility for the successes and good scores, nor can I take all the responsibility for people who didn't do as well, because I can just do my part, and then I have to count on them to do their part.”
Stephanie Walker, a Democratic board member, asked Gates if after taking Kidwell’s course could her daughter write a rhetorical analysis critiquing Stamped if she was allowed to read the book.
She replied, “Yes, I believe she could.”
Another complaint made by Gates and the four Republican members who voted to remove the book was its low Lexile score. However, the district responded that this is only one component of rigor. For example, Night by Elie Wiesel, and works by Ernest Hemingway are examples of low Lexile texts that still deal with complex and challenging themes. Brinson added that students need to be mature enough to engage with the content of these texts.
Gates claimed that Kidwell hid the contents of her AP syllabus from parents.
“Both Stamped and the book, The 57 Bus, which focuses on gender identity, were required readings in her class, were left off the College Board syllabus when she submitted her class for approval by the College Board. Those two books remain entirely unapproved with zero accountability. The educational suitability of the book was never evaluated either by the College Board or the MTAC (Media/Technology Advisory Committee) prior to its use in the classroom. This is a deceitful practice,” Gates said.
But according to Holly Stepp, executive director of media relations for the College Board, “As part of our audit process, teachers do have to submit syllabi for review. How often varies from course to course but it’s no more than once a year. Our course frameworks include primary sources but teachers can add material if they like.”
Brinson also affirmed that this how the College Board works. Further, she countered Gates’s claim that there was no process for Stamped to come into the district’s libraries and schools.
Brinson said the Ashley High School MTAC did approve this book selection, and because it was purchased through this committee for the school’s library, it didn’t have to go through the ‘Quality Review Checklist’ (QRC). This checklist is only used when a teacher brings a source material into the school. Barnhart was also concerned that Stamped didn’t undergo this QRC process, but Brinson again said that it had already been approved through the school’s MTAC for use.
Who was hurt?
Both Barnhart and Board Chair Pete Wildeboer asked Gates how the process had been on her and her family. They both claimed that through this process, Gates’s daughter was “isolated” because she chose to read an alternate book.
Gates told WHQR in an interview that it was her choice to remove her daughter from the class. Gates had claimed her student missed up to a month of instruction, but Kidwell countered her daughter missed a maximum of 10 days. During this time, she was given course assignments and alternate readings.
Wildeboer then asked Gates, “Is this a normal pattern for you?” implying she hadn’t been exposed to this degree of public scrutiny before. She responded, “No, this is not my normal pattern.”
But Gates has been attending the district’s ‘Call to the Audience’ period since 2021. At a July 13, 2021 board meeting, Gates decried the state’s social studies standards, saying, “I believe that vague and generalized concepts in these standards leave the door wide open for our schools to abuse the teaching of civics and history by using that time to end space to teach SEL (social emotional learning) and critical race theory concepts like equity and implicit bias. They indoctrinate and categorize our kids and they divide not unify.”
In early December 2022, when Kidwell first learned of Gates’s dismay at her reading the book, Gates informed Kidwell that she was sending a notice to Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson’s F.A.C.T.S (Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students) Task Force on her alleged ‘bias teaching’.
Gates also started calling out the book,Stampedand Kidwell’s classroom starting in January 2023. She also appeared subsequent times to further address the decisions of the MTAC committees. At one point during the September 1 hearing, Gates alleged that some parents were afraid to address concerns with Kidwell because she would retaliate against them in terms of grading.
At an August 1 board meeting, Lewis Bernstein, a parent of a former student in Kidwell's class, came to her defense, saying he supported her and her teaching.
Nonetheless, Gates said she and her family were hurt by this process after questions from Wildeboer and Barnhart. At one point during the hearing, though, Walker asked Gates if this exposure was self-imposed.
Kidwell said she also felt this degree of intense scrutiny by both Gates and the four Republican board members.
“I had to prove that I was trained, that I was a professional; I have to continually add credits to keep my license. I have degrees; I'm supposed to be an expert. You [the district] hired me to be an expert; you won't let me do my job,” Kidwell said.
After the hearing, Walker said she had a message for Kidwell.
“First of all, we need you as a teacher. You're a professional. Your viewpoint matters, your excellent track record; the fact that you have gotten so many students through this AP course, and they've done so well,” Walker said.
Walker did ask Brinson if teachers would leave because of this new precedent being set.
Brinson responded, “The potential is there.” Foust at one point added that the district trusts their educators to teach the standards — and use the materials (which come through either the MTAC or the QRC) they deem appropriate in their classrooms.
Balance of sources?
Wildeboer also brought up the issue of having “balance” in this AP classroom and said Kidwell’s classroom needed more of it.
Brinson responded that Kidwell reads a variety of works, like excerpts of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and speeches from George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Mitch McConnell. Brinson added, responding to Wildeboer’s point, that it’s difficult to have one text in a rhetoric class take on several different arguments.
On the test, one of the essays the AP Language students have to write is making an effective argument. Kidwell said students can acknowledge the opposing side, but students have to build a claim and have evidence to support it.
Additionally, part of the board’s motion was to direct Kidwell to select a “balanced” book for her classroom.
When asked what this meant, Kraybill said, “I have no idea where they're (the four other Republican members) coming from. What scares me is that at least three of them are going to try and pick the book, which means the school board is dictating to teachers what they can teach and how they can teach it.”
Gates and some Republican constituents who have spoken at previous ‘Call to the Audiences’ have advocated for Thomas Sowell’s works to be part of the curriculum. Gates also suggested adding more classical texts to Kidwell’s curriculum, like Catcher in the Rye and Paradise Lost.
Vice Chair Pat Bradford read out the main texts that Kidwell uses in her course, saying, “The theme I see there is more about this group of people oppressed this group of people. I don't see the balance.”
Bradford did say she approved of Kidwell’s reading of the Red Badge of Courage and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
Kidwell said in response to Bradford, “For most of history, the oppressor has been able to tell the story. And now we're getting to a place in society where maybe we should hear from the people who are oppressed in the system, and hear how they are framing this, and how they view it. And that's what the book, Stamped, does. And I don't think that should necessarily have feelings of guilt that accompany it unless you have a reason to feel guilty.”
As for this future ‘balanced’ book, Kidwell said, “What is the alternate point of view to racism? That there is no racism, and racism is not a problem United States? Or the side of the white supremacists that say we had a right to operate this way? Like I don't understand what that looks like.”
She added, “If I'm teaching the Holocaust, there are certain things that are just objectively wrong and bad. I'm not going to give a space when I'm teaching the Holocaust for Hitler to justify why it was okay to annihilate people. We will mention it in passing, we may look at a quote or two about it, but they're not going to read a book that says the Holocaust was good.”
Which Black history to teach?
One of Gates’s main arguments against the book was that it would make white students feel bad.
McManus countered that, saying this is an important book for the Black community, and to ban it would be a “slap” in their face. Brinson said something similar in her defense of the book, that if Stamped was removed, “What are you telling our teachers? What are you telling our African American students?”
North Carolina NAACP President Deborah Dicks Maxwell and other political activists like Sonya Patrick held a press conference after the decision.
“We can't change the past, but we can make a better future. But today, they [the school board] made a new place in history on racism right here in New Hanover County. One parent should not make this decision. We are all taxpayers, and it should have never gotten this far, but we will not give up,” Patrick said.
Bradford took issue with Stamped being labeled a non-fiction book, but she later said she didn’t understand why a book on history was used in a rhetoric course. However, AP students have to evaluate arguments, and they do have to identify any claims an author is making — and that is usually on a salient issue or historical event that could be divisive.
The book does have extensive endnotes with primary and secondary sources. Gates claimed that the authors misquoted these sources. But Brinson said she had contacted the editors of the book, and they did fact-check these sources.
Bradford also said Reynolds’s rhetoric was not reputable and shouldn’t be used, as she is a writing and communications expert.
Kidwell said, “the College Board expects them to analyze current people's speeches and writings as well as past, and they have to be able to do both. Students connect with Jason Reynolds. His voice is very approachable; it is a unique way to analyze rhetoric. So to look at a Thomas Jefferson speech, and then compare what Reynolds says about Jefferson would be case in point a way to study the rhetoric.”
Kidwell also addressed the claim that Stamped — and, by extension, her own course — was anti-American. But she argued that the point of Stamped wasn't to disparage the United States, but to provide a more nuanced and accurate view.
“Ironically, in Stamped, one of the most salient points is this idea that you take a historical figure like Thomas Jefferson, and, actually, you can't look at him with a black-and-white lens. He's not good or bad. He's a human. And he's complicated. And he did awful things. He raped slaves, and he owned humans. But he also wrote the Declaration of Independence. And, how do we hold both of those things in our head, that's the whole point that Stamped is trying to make. And America is an amazing country, but they've also done some really awful things. And you can love your country, and still know that there are awful things that happened here,” Kidwell said.
Even though Gates got what she wanted, she said she still doesn’t see it as a victory necessarily.
“I don't consider it a win for me. I'm not doing this for Katie Gates; I'm doing this for the students. I'm doing this for the community. I'm doing it because I want our students to grow up having pride in the country that we live in, to experience the freedoms that we experience in America, and to be grateful for it,” Gates said.
Chair Pete Wildeboer declined an interview following the hearing. But, when WHQR asked Kraybill what a ‘temporary removal’ meant, she called it, “a cop-out to pander to the people in the middle; they are very sad that this is happening, because they know they're going to change the policy. And we've already heard it at the policy committee meeting, so it's not temporary, but permanent.”
And the four other Republican members did make it clear during the hearing that Stamped is not meant for the classroom.
Maxwell said after the hearing she was going to consult with legal counsel on behalf of the NAACP but hasn’t formally announced any action.
New Hanover County Democratic Chair Jill Hopman also said at the September ‘Call to the Audience’ that the party would be speaking with the ACLUabout the book's removal. She added that the local Democrats would support a suit if another organization brought one.
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