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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.

CMS flip on Banned Books Week: Anatomy of a communication mess

A collage of messages
Layna Hong
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WFAE photo montage
A public records request for correspondence related to Banned Books Week in CMS produced emails, text messages and links to coverage.

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.

After reporting on the recent decision by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ leaders to ban activities related to Banned Books Week, then quickly retract that decision, I filed a public records request to learn more about how that situation shaped up. There were no bombshells in the correspondence (you can find it all here), and it’s still not clear how the observances were incorrectly linked to North Carolina’s new Parents’ Bill of Rights law.

But I did learn how one principal’s request for guidance turned into a memo that drew international scrutiny, how the grapevine got ahead of official communication and how a key player was left out of the loop. And the odd timing of the first directive to principals — sent as schools were starting to close on a Friday, with Banned Books Week starting two days later — appears to be tied to the kind of digital slip-up we can all relate to.

To set the stage, go back to the early part of 2023, when Brooke Weiss, president of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, raised concerns about two sex guides for teens that she had found in the online catalog for the library at the new Palisades High School. This was, of course, part of a national movement by parents’ rights groups to find and challenge books they deem offensive because of sexual content, vulgarity and other themes. Crystal Hill, who had recently been named interim superintendent, quickly pulled the books (circumventing the CMS board’s policy on book challenges) and ordered a review of the 8,500-book bundle that had been ordered to stock the new library.

This year the American Library Association marked Banned Books Week in the first week of October. As that time neared, Palisades Principal Erik Olejarczyk emailed CMS Communications Chief Shayla Cannady and two of his superiors in the Southwest Learning Community asking for guidance.

“The theme for this year is ‘Freedom to Read.’ Due to the recent political environment and experiences at PHS last year, I am reaching out for your support to help craft communication to the community around Banned Books Week,” he wrote on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

Principal O, as he’s known to his students, outlined a tentative plan for announcements regarding Banned Books Week, starting with a message to families that would be sent Sunday, Oct. 1, and following up with daily intercom announcements by student leaders. Messages to parents and students highlighted the increasing number of book challenges and referred people to the American Library Association’s Uniteagainstbookbans.org website. One of the announcements scheduled to be read by students said that “the majority of the 2,571 books targeted for censorship last year in the U.S. were written by LGBTQIA+ persons, black, indigenous, or people of color,” and another said that “prevalent use of lists of books compiled by organized censorship groups contributed significantly to the skyrocketing number of challenges.”

Principal O noted that the school book club had decided against doing “read alouds” from banned books, and asked for approval and/or guidance on the planned observance.

CMS taps the brakes

Shortly after noon on Wednesday, Sept. 27, Susan Vernon-Devlin of the CMS communications staff sent her boss, Cannady, a draft message to Principal O, with the header “Stand Down on Banned Book Events.”

“Please cancel all events and messaging associated with this observance,” it said. “‘Banned Book Week’ is not aligned with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools academic curriculum or our pillars of excellence. It is not something we teach in our classrooms or as supplementary material for out of school learning. Do not send out any communication on ‘Banned Book Week.’ Do not use school resources to promote or communicate about this observance, this includes but is not limited to daily announcements on the loudspeaker, visuals on screens, bulletin board displays, book displays in the media center or in classrooms. Do not hold any book readings or offer suggestions for resources for staff and students. Please communicate this stand down to all teachers and staff. Under the Parents’ Bill of Rights, any attempts to share material in relation to Banned Book Week could be seen as a violation of the measure.”

Cannady forwarded the draft to Chief School Performance Officer Jaron Carson and Deputy Superintendent Melissa Balknight. At 1:06 p.m. Wednesday, Southwest Learning Community Superintendent Nicolette Grant emailed Principal O: “I just received communication from Mr. Carson stating that CMS will NOT participate in the Banned Book Week.” She told him not to approve any of the messages he had submitted.

Within an hour, Palisades Media Coordinator (aka librarian) Meghan Sanford emailed Kimberly Ray, the district’s director of library services. “This is thoroughly disappointing. Talking about Banned Books Week is literally part of our goals as school librarians — advocating for informational freedom. How is this not allowed? Do you know about this?” Sanford asked.

Ray replied that she did not, and asked Sanford to forward anything she had received. Sanford did so, describing herself as “just in shock honestly, and crying at work in my office.” That evening she emailed Ray again, noting that many media coordinators had lessons and activities planned for the following weeks.

Confusion and delays

On Wednesday evening and Thursday, Ray received emails from librarians who had heard about the directive and wanted to know what was happening. She forwarded the emails to Erin Shoemaker, CMS' executive director of teaching and learning, and did her best to respond.

The previous week Ray had told the media coordinator at Garinger that a Banned Books Week lesson should be acceptable “as long as you make sure to show there are multiple viewpoints/sides of the debate and allow students to arrive at their own conclusion.” Now she apologized to Hopewell High’s media coordinator for not being able to provide more clarity. “I don't know any specifics other than ‘CMS is not observing banned books week’ but if that is the directive you were given, you will have to adhere to it,” Ray wrote.

On Thursday afternoon, Cannady emailed Principal O to say that “messaging will go out to all principals to make them aware,” but another full day would pass before that happened.

By Friday, members of Ray’s staff were trying to figure out whether they needed to remove references to Banned Book Week activities from resources such as the district’s "Effective Library Programming for Diverse Youth Toolkit." In September Ray had sent a memo about how school libraries should respond to SB 49, a 12-page parental rights bill approved in August. That memo instructed media center staff to “ensure multiple viewpoints are represented if controversial topics are included in a bulletin board message/display.”

Now, lacking clarity from top officials in CMS, Ray emailed a staffer to say that “my inclination is to leave it in the absence of any formal communication rec'd from leadership, but I am concerned that a well-meaning (media coordinator) will do something and get in trouble at his/her site. Can we temporarily remove this (even though it makes me nauseous at the thought of it), from the stance of protecting them? If someone has already seen it and is doing something, our guidance has been to show multiple perspectives.”

A text message between top CMS administrators indicates the first message about Banned Books Week was accidentally delayed.
CMS
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Public records
A text message between top CMS administrators indicates the first message about Banned Books Week was accidentally delayed.

‘What the hell are you doing?’

It was 2:20 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, as high schools were dismissing for the weekend, when Cannady emailed all principals with a message similar to the one that went to Principal O two days earlier. It asked principals to cancel all events and messaging related to Banned Books Week, saying the observance is not aligned with CMS curriculum or pillars of excellence. And it included the caution, without further explanation, that Banned Book Week could violate the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights.

In the aftermath there was speculation that the Friday timing was an attempt to fly under the public radar and avoid controversy. But text messages provided as part of the public records files suggest a different explanation.

The exchange between MB and JC appears to be between Balknight and Carson, though CMS says the records staff can’t confirm who sent the messages. Shortly after noon on Thursday, MB sent JC a message that read: “I’m resending you principal message regarding banned books week. I wanted to make sure this is worded correctly from an academics/curriculum perspective.”JC replied with a thumbs up, saying “It is!” At 1:57 p.m. Friday, MB texted again: “Just realized the banned book message has been in my draft folder … sending now to all principals.”

Blowback came quickly. Stacy Staggs is a CMS parent who works with Public School Strong, a group created this summer to support public educators and push back against Moms for Liberty and other groups trying to restrict access to books. At 3:40 p.m., Staggs sent a copy of the directive to Superintendent Hill and the school board with a terse message: “I received this from multiple sources across CMS today. What the hell are you doing?”

CMS board member Melissa Easley emailed staff to ask for an explanation, and at 4:41 p.m. CMS Chief of Staff Ingrid Medlock emailed Balknight asking for a response that would be copied to Staggs, Easley, board services and the superintendent.

“We are working on the response now,” Cannady replied at 4:45 p.m.

Reporters were also getting copies of the directive. I received it from a CMS employee within an hour of its dissemination to principals, and emails show The Charlotte Observer’s Anna Maria Della Costa also filed a query on Friday.

Reversal and attention

I posted my first version of the story Friday evening, and it quickly drew attention on social media from people who were delighted or dismayed that CMS had banned Banned Books Week activities.

At 6:48 p.m. Friday, Cannady sent a follow-up to principals: “We have received several inquiries about whether the information shared earlier about Banned Book Week was mandatory for distribution. The original message shared by the Communications Division was shared in response to several principal requests about the observance. The information shared was for building-level administrators to use, if needed. We are not taking a position on banned book week as it is a site-based decision. It is not a violation or in any way associated with Parents Bill of Rights.”

I updated my story Saturday morning, after the CMS communications department sent me that message. By that point, I had already seen it shared on social media … and CMS was getting queries from reporters in London and New York. Other websites, including The Daily Beast, simply aggregated information from my story or The Observer’s and blasted it out.

Bottom line: People around the world were scratching their heads at the district’s handling of this matter.

Lessons learned?

It’s worth noting that all of the key players in the botched messaging — Balknight, Carson and Cannady — are fairly new to CMS. It’s unclear how involved Superintendent Hill was in approval of the initial message, though as the big boss she has to own it.

The records I received include a four-page unsigned “Response,” which appears to be from the communications office in the aftermath. It details media inquiries and the department’s responses, including one sent Saturday to a reporter from The Messenger in New York: “The original email was sent in error. The district distributed a second email for clarification.”

I hope a more candid and detailed postmortem took place. This type of clash isn’t going away, and it’s not limited to Charlotte.

But if you’re waiting for me to wrap this up with zingy advice on how they could have threaded this needle, it’s not going to happen. Sure, there are obvious hindsight lessons, such as “loop in the people who will get questions” and “don’t throw in misguided references to state politics.” But if there’s a way to ensure that educators can have meaningful discussions about current events without getting caught in the crossfire between angry community members, I haven’t figured it out.

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.