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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 panel brings thoughtful, calm deliberation over tough themes in challenged books

Stack of books
Ann Doss Helms
Books that have been challenged by parents in CMS

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.

At school board meetings across the country, you’ll hear plenty of name-calling when it comes to library books with controversial content. At a July Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting, Brooke Weiss of Mecklenburg Moms for Liberty said “only perverts and groomers” would disagree with her call to restrict access to sexually explicit content, while Stacy Staggs of Public School Strong said people trying to restrict access belong to “anti-government extremist hate groups.”

Which is why it was refreshing and a bit surprising to hear the calm deliberations that took place during the last couple of weeks, as a new CMS panel set up to review book challenges held its first two meetings.

The district specialists and parents who took up five books that Weiss has challenged at Ardrey Kell High clearly appreciated the concerns. At the first meeting, Kim Ray, head of library services for CMS, described herself as “a conservative mom of boys” who struggled with the violence, sex, substance abuse and bullying in a novel about a school shooting. Faith Butta, a parent volunteer, talked about asking her eighth-grade daughter how she felt about some of the content in the challenged books. “It was kind of a mixed bag,” she reported. Her daughter had seen bullying and fights, but “regarding anything of a sexual nature, she was not interested in having that discussion with me, at all, in the slightest.”

Weiss said she was impressed by the process and respected the panel’s decision to keep the first two books, even if she disagreed. But when I asked her if she’d describe this crew as perverts and groomers, she said, “Ask me again next week.” That’s when the panel was scheduled to take up “Jack of Hearts (and other parts),” a book Weiss says has no place in an educational setting.

Raunchy — with a message

I decided to read L.C. Rosen’s young-adult novel about a sexually active teen who launches an online sex-advice column for his classmates. There’s no doubt it’s graphic, describing in gleeful detail (and teen slang) just about every variation on sex you can imagine. It’s also funny. If you’ve seen the Netflix series “Sex Education,” this is familiar territory.

Like many young adult novels, “Jack of Hearts” is about delivering a message. In this case, that message is that sex is natural and beautiful, and as long as you communicate your desires, respect your partner and use condoms, then it doesn’t matter who you’re attracted to or what kind of sex you have. It’s not pornography, in that it’s clearly not written for sexual arousal, but it’s also not a message every family would endorse. Even if you do endorse it and believe that queer teens in particular need affirmation, you might find yourself uncomfortable — as many of the panelists did — with a teenage protagonist who’s having frequent, casual sex with different partners, often while drinking and smoking weed.

The first meeting brought consensus among the panelists, but each of the three books reviewed in the second meeting brought split decisions. By a slim majority, the group kept “Jack of Hearts” and “Tricks,” a free-verse story about teen prostitution, while removing “A Court of Frost and Starlight” because some members of the panel didn’t think the merits of the dystopian fantasy novel outweighed the sex.

Perverts and groomers?

Weiss, of course, disagreed and said she’ll appeal the decision on “Jack of Hearts” to Superintendent Crystal Hill — something Ray encouraged her to do, given the difficulty her group had deciding whether the book is suitable for school libraries.

But when I asked Weiss whether the folks in the room who had disagreed with her assessment were perverts and groomers, Weiss replied, “Absolutely not. I think they had a great discussion in there.”

“They repeatedly talked about the difficult decision that it was, how it made them uncomfortable,” she said.

So there’s room for common ground and empathy, but it still strikes me that this remains a discussion among adults. Students aren’t checking these books out and peppering their parents with awkward questions about prostitution, drug use and sex. Adults who distrust public schools are sharing lists of books to challenge, with directions on where to find the controversial passages.

Ray reported that most of the challenged books have seldom — in some schools never — been checked out. The exception, she said, was “A Court of Frost and Starlight,” part of a series by Sarah J. Maas that’s not specifically aimed at teens. Ray described it as “wildly popular.” When my editor asked for specifics, she looked into it: It’s in 22 schools and has been checked out 62 times in the five years since the book was published. So … that’s an average of less than three checkouts per school, or less than one a year. But Ray assured me that’s heavy traffic by school library standards.

In my day, the uproar over library books might have seen us all scrambling to find the forbidden material. Today’s teens seem to be responding with a big yawn.

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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.