In CMS book battles, a superintendent’s plan collides with legislators’ mandate
This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.
In early May, as battles over sexual content in books at schools raged, then-Interim Superintendent Crystal Hill told the school board she was reworking the regulation on how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools selects books and handles challenges. She said she’d get her proposal to the board by the end of the week.
A quick reminder of how this works: The school board makes policy and the superintendent writes regulations that detail how that policy will be carried out. (Here’s the current policy and regulation on acquiring and screening library material.)
And a reminder of why this is a big deal, lest anyone hasn’t noticed: Across the country, members of groups like Moms for Liberty are showing up at school board meetings, often with poster-size copies of book illustrations, to read graphic passages from books found in school libraries or assigned for classroom reading. It’s part of a “parents’ rights” push to demonstrate that the people running public schools can’t be trusted to protect children.
After two months of asking, I got a copy of Hill’s proposed regulation last week.
Charles Jeter, the CMS staffer who works with the board on policy and government relations, added a big caveat: Hill and her staff will probably have to scrap it and start fresh in August. That’s when the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly is expected to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
That 12-page bill requires school districts to establish a process for parents to inspect and review all material used in classrooms and to object to textbooks and other assigned material. Once it becomes law, Jeter says – not just CMS – but districts across the state will have to figure out what’s needed to comply.
Smut or free expression?
Meanwhile, clashes over books continue across the region. York County, South Carolina, recently reduced the size of its public library board amid claims that the children’s section contains sexually inappropriate material. The Catawba County school board has been grappling with book challenges for more than a year — and Michelle Teague, a Mama Bears of Catawba County founder who has led the challenge, was elected to the board in November.
And in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the July board meeting featured Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg Moms for Liberty chapter, brandishing an enlarged cartoon illustration of a naked man, which she noted had been in a seventh-grade classroom. She said those who disagree with limiting access to such material are “perverts and groomers.” What she didn’t mention is that it comes from “This Book Is Gay,” which was never approved for CMS classroom use. It apparently got from a teacher’s private material onto a classroom shelf, and CMS removed it last fall as soon as Moms for Liberty members called it to their attention. Weiss’ husband, Brian, read aloud a sex scene from L.C. Rosen’s “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” which is described by Amazon as a debut novel about “an unapologetically queer teen” who “has a lot of sex — and he's not ashamed of it.” So … you can imagine (or watch the archived meeting).
Stacy Staggs, wearing a Public School Strong T-shirt, argued that no books in school libraries meet the legal definition of obscenity and talked about “anti-government extremist hate groups” that are trying to restrict access. “It’s not pornography because you say it is,” she said. “It doesn’t get any lower than being so inexplicably blind to your privilege that you spin made-up issues and ignore actual problems facing our students, like poverty, food and housing insecurity and school shootings.” And Meghan Sanford, a CMS media coordinator, told the board that reading books about diverse lives develops empathy and reduces bullying.
At this point, a lot of folks have chosen a side: Either book-banners are trying to isolate queer students and others who don’t fit their mold, or groomers are trying to force smut on children without their parents’ consent. But it seems to me there’s room for nuance. I suspect I’m not the only person who’s not part of Moms for Liberty but cringes at some of these read-alouds and wonders if this material is suitable for teens to read at school. That seems to be the needle that Superintendent Hill, the mother of two high school students, is trying to thread.
For now, CMS reports that “Jack of Hearts” is on the shelves at Mallard Creek, Myers Park, Palisades, West Charlotte, Ardrey Kell, Providence and Julius Chambers high schools and Northwest School of the Arts. Communications Director Susan Vernon-Devlin says it has been checked out a total of four times at two of those schools, and no one has filed a formal challenge. But it is among the books being reviewed by media advisory committees at Palisades and West Charlotte High, she says, as part of a look at the 8,500-book collection that those schools received when new buildings opened last year.