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Four Republicans on NHC school board lay groundwork for controversial book review committee

April 2023 Board of Education meeting crowd
Rachel Keith
April 2023 Board of Education meeting crowd

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, New Hanover County School Board members discussed creating a new district book review committee. The proposal would be in addition to existing board policies already outlining how a book can be challenged and potentially removed from the school system.

The one-page document outlining the proposal said the committee will “establish excellence in our libraries and classrooms and provide students with the highest quality literature.”

Board Member Melissa Mason introduced the committee.

Mason has a history of decrying explicit content in the district’s books. Leading up to her November 2022 campaign, she railed against Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, saying that he along with District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon were complicit in giving pornography to children.

Related: NHCSO investigated schools for ‘obscene and pornographic’ books, DA found no unlawful content 

And at the meeting, Mason maintained some of this stance, saying that the books in some of the district’s schools and libraries were “disturbing.”

While she acknowledged the existence of “top-down” formal book challenge policies like 3200and 3210, she wanted this “advisory” committee to have more involvement of parents and community members.

Related: ‘Stamped’ out? The battle to remove an AP-English book from a New Hanover County school

“This is the people’s choice — the people’s standards to be set,” she said. “These changes are not going to happen overnight — and we will do this thoughtfully.”

Mason added she wanted a rating system for books instituted like the ones for movies and CDs. That the district would eventually have “warning labels” for ones not entirely removed.

Related: Books on race, sexuality among most targeted across N.C. schools

Committee makeup

As the proposal stands now, the bulk of the committee, seven members, would be from the community — first come, first serve through an online application. It would also include one teacher and a media specialist from the district.

Additionally, one board member “liaison,” with no voting privileges, would be chosen by the board chair (currently, that's Republican Board Chair Pete Wildeboer).

Overall, these 10 committee members will review “all books and media across the district” so that they meet “community standards including age-appropriate content.”

These members, according to the policy, will also ensure that the community and parents have a voice in the education system to ensure “a viable future workforce.”

Slightly more people turned out to say ‘No’ to the committee

About a third of community members during the public comment period endorsed this committee; about 40% did not.

Supporters of the committee made comments that said “pornographic” books needed to get out of the schools and that books like the Bible needed to be front and center.

Community member Karen Clark said that some of these books, although she didn’t name which ones, are “evil and demonic and they will destroy our children" and “stray from our Christian views.” Earl Grover said these unnamed books are contributing to the rise of mass shooters and homosexuality.

Some of the dissenters, like Kristina Mercier, Betsy Siewe, and Leslie Posey, made historical references to book banning (and some very public burnings) in Nazi Germany, saying contemporary book-banning efforts are on the wrong side of history.

Community member Rachel Doll added that books have the ability to teach critical thinking skills and empathy. She asked the board to let the professionals “do their jobs” in terms of deciding which books should be taught in the classroom and available in the library. She added that book bans are based on fear and not in truth.

Throughout the public comment period, the audience, at times, got rowdy and Wildeboer had to gavel them to remain quiet while others were speaking.

Related: Some call it ‘teaching history,’ others call it ‘indoctrination,’ and the fight is far from over

Board discussion

When it came time for the board to discuss the committee, four Republicans were mainly on board with Mason’s idea; however, Wildeboer did say he wanted more representation of professional staff.

Democratic board members Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus and Republican Stephanie Kraybill were in opposition to the committee, saying it should be parents who decide what books their children read. They noted teachers offer alternate assignments if a parent disagrees with a book that’s part of a class.

Kraybill vehemently disagreed with Mason’s proposal, noting the district already has a process for challenges, and asking how the committee could logistically review all the books in the schools and in teachers’ classroom libraries. She also said she was concerned about First Amendment rights.

“So if our teachers and our students are daring to go find out more information, are they going to be targeted and labeled? Are the Joseph McCarthy lovers going to come out and strike them down and ruin their reputations? It just seems like we are trying to create an authoritarian state or a dictatorship when we really are a democracy, which several of our speakers spoke to,” Kraybill said.

She also addressed a comment from an audience member, former Democratic school board candidate Dorian Cromartie, who said if the Republican members were ready to ban incidences of violence, incest, and sexual violence found in some library books, they should go ahead and ban the Bible, too.

Kraybill added that several members of the audience who wanted the book advisory committee shared the false idea that this is a solely Christian nation.

“So to keep coming back to good old, solid Christian values, to me, is just wrong, because there are many people in our county that are not Christian, but some of the stories that were pointed out about what was happening in the Bible were very similar to the stories that you just related to us, Ms. Bradford,” referring to Bradford discussing earlier controversial excerpts from the books All Boys Aren’t Blue, Out of Darkness, and The Court of Mist and Fury.

“If our kids are allowed to read a Bible and learn about sodomy, but they're not allowed to read a book and discuss it with their parents?” Kraybill asked.

Wildeboer cut Kraybill off to let Bradford speak.

“The Bible deals with really heinous topics. But if you remember what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord destroyed it down to the ground, so the Bible is teaching you a lesson. So yes, those things are in it, but it's a moral lesson," Bradford said.

Bradford added that the Republican members who took office last year have a mandate.

“With some 160,000 votes, the people in this county told us when we were running for office, ‘You got to take care of these books. You got to get some of this vile stuff out of the school,’” Bradford said, referring to the combined votes received by herself, Mason, Wildeboer, and Josie Barnhart.

In the last election, the four Republican school board candidates collectively received 180,212 votes in comparison to the Democrats' 168,202 — that’s a difference of around 12,000 votes, equal to about 3% of the total votes cast in that race.

What's next

Since this was a preliminary hearing, the board did not take any formal action to create the committee — although it appears they have the votes to do so.

Right before the discussion ended, McManus appeared resigned to this fact, and said, “Why don’t you just go ahead and do it, let’s get it over with.”

The topic is likely to show up during an upcoming town hall, which the New Hanover County School Board is hosting on Tuesday, April 18 from 5-7 p.m. The board is asking the community to submit their questions here.

The board will also allot time for community members to pose questions directly to them.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR