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Both in the Charlotte region and across the country, book battles have become a regular feature of school board meetings, as parents’ rights groups share tips on finding sexual content and other offensive material in students’ reading material.

New CMS review panel stands by two challenged novels. Three more are up next

A new CMS panel to rule on book challenges looked Monday at the novels "Sold" and "Ninteen Minutes," about teen sex trafficking and a school shooting.
Ann Doss Helms
A new CMS panel to rule on book challenges looked Monday at the novels "Sold" and "Ninteen Minutes," about teen sex trafficking and a school shooting.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a new panel to review challenged books. At its first meeting Monday, it upheld Ardrey Kell High School’s decision to keep two young-adult novels on its library shelves.

The panelists, a mix of central-office specialists and parents, decided the merits of the books outweighed the potential drawbacks of letting teens read about disturbing themes. They said it wasn’t an easy call, and the next round is likely to be even more difficult.

“We will have three more, and I suspect that there will be, probably, a lot more conversations about some of those,” CMS library services director Kim Ray said.

Brooke Weiss, president of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, has asked her daughter’s high school to restrict access to eight books in the library. So far the school’s review panel has voted to keep five, with three more still under review.

The Central Media Advisory Committee took up the first two Monday. Jodi Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes” tells the story of a school shooting and Patricia McCormick’s “Sold” is a fictional account of a 13-year-old Nepali girl sold into prostitution.

A new ‘parents rights’ approach

Weiss’ challenges are part of a national movement by parents’ rights groups to seek the removal or restriction of books that have themes they take issue with. This summer North Carolina lawmakers approved a bill that sponsors dubbed a Parents’ Bill of Rights, which includes a requirement that districts set up a process for parents to review and challenge library and classroom material.

CMS already had a process for selecting and challenging library material, but a new regulation created in response to the state law made changes. Before, anyone in the community could challenge a library book; now a challenge must be filed by someone who has a child at that school. The new panel can extend its decision about a book challenged at one school to the entire district. And unlike the old system, the district review panel’s meetings are now posted and open to the public.

Panelists read the complaint and the book, and are instructed to look at such things as whether the information presented is factual, reliable and unbiased. When books include sexual content, the panel is instructed to look at the literary value of the books, age-appropriateness and community standards.

Imagining a school shooting

Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes” presents several perspectives of events leading up to and following a 19-minute shooting rampage at a high school. In addition to the horrific violence, panelists said it dealt with sex, abortion, bullying and substance abuse.

The CMS Central Media Advisory Committee looked at options for "Nineteen Minutes."
Ann Doss Helms
The CMS Central Media Advisory Committee looked at options for "Nineteen Minutes."

Ray said she grappled with the book from two perspectives: As a librarian and as “a conservative mom of boys.” She said she sided with keeping the book because it has valuable messages about bullying, empathy and the right way for young men to treat young women.

“However, I would want that to be done in a place where I could have a conversation,” she said.

Erin Shoemaker and Jennifer Gunn, both administrators serving on the panel, said the book could lead to important discussions about bullying and human nature. Camie Snyder, a district media specialist, said she was inclined to keep it in libraries but require parental permission.

The group agreed to keep the book available not only at Ardrey Kell but at all CMS high schools, but label it as not appropriate for middle schools.

Sex trafficking is timely topic

Panelists said “Sold” was even more uncomfortable to read because it involved rape and sexual exploitation of a young teenager. Pa Thao, director of elementary education, said she also had concerns that it was such a negative depiction of Asian life, which she hopes is balanced by other books in school libraries.

But panelists also noted that North Carolina teens also face the threat of being exploited by sex traffickers who lure young people by making promises in online encounters, similar to what happens in the novel.

“I feel like this is a very timely topic. The whole issue of sex trafficking and abuse is not just a global concern. It’s a local concern,” Snyder said. Students “may themselves be approached by these forces that are trying to harm our young people.”

Ray said the author researched the topic thoroughly and presented the sexual content without being graphic. Once again, the panel decided to clear “Sold” for high schools but restrict it from middle schools.

Three more coming

Brooke Weiss and her husband, Brian, attended the meeting but weren’t asked to speak. Brooke Weiss said afterward that she disagrees with the decisions but won’t appeal them to the superintendent.

Ardrey Kell High School has denied Brooke Weiss' request to restrict access to these five books.
Ann Doss Helms
Ardrey Kell High School has denied Brooke Weiss' request to restrict access to these five books.

She called the process thorough and says many panelists’ comments about their own struggles reflect her own belief that parents need to know if their children are reading this kind of material.

“To me, that speaks to the entire point that I’m making: Parents should be able to make the decision for themselves,” she said.

Parents can already restrict their own children’s access to certain books, but the district so far has not created any kind of system to designate specific books as requiring parental review.

The next meeting, which hasn’t yet been scheduled, will take up three more of Weiss’ challenges:

  • Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)” is a young-adult novel by L.C. Rosen about an openly gay teen who writes an online sex advice column and is stalked by a secret admirer. The book has been challenged across the country because it includes discussion of oral and anal sex (read the author’s defense here). CMS has reported that eight high schools, including Ardrey Kell, have the book in their libraries.
  • A Court of Frost and Starlight” is part of a fantasy series by Sarah Maas, with sex scenes that have also led to frequent challenges.
  • Tricks,” a novel by Ellen Hopkins, centers on five teenagers from across the country who “fall into prostitution.”  

Weiss says “Jack of Hearts,” in particular, has the kind of sexual content that shouldn’t be allowed in schools.
“That’s the one I’m most interested in seeing how they decide,” she said after Monday’s meeting. “I don’t think that book has any value in an educational setting. If a parent wants their child to read it, then it’s available in the public library and it’s available for purchase.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.