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New Hanover County school board will now decide “Stamped” book challenge

"Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" - The book in question at Ashley High School.
Benjamin Schachtman
"Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" - The book in question at Ashley High School.

The future of the book, Stamped: Antiracism, Racism, and You in New Hanover County Schools is now in the hands of the Board of Education.

The controversy started when Katie Gates, the parent of an Ashley High School AP Language and Composition student, filed an official complaint last December with the school’s Media and Technology Advisory Committee (MTAC).

She objected to the book, written by Jason Reynolds, adapted from the work of Ibram X. Kendi, for things like “embracing dangerous ideologies and disparaging the Founding Fathers.”

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

Gates lost appeals to both Ashley High’s and the district’s MTAC committees and is now requesting that the school board, under policy 3210, conduct a public hearing to determine whether the book can be used as instructional material in the school system.

On June 4, Board member Stephanie Walker posted on her Facebook page about the board’s pending decision on the book’s future.

“We have a parent who is challenging the district to remove this book based on ‘historical inaccuracies' and it being ‘communist’. So we all have agreed to read the book and decide whether we are going to hold a public hearing on its fate,” Walker wrote.

She added, “I am not in favor of banning books, especially because I stand by our [C]onstitution (among other reasons), but also because one person or even a handful of folks, including school board members, should not have the power to remove books for tens of thousands of students and parents.”

But board members like Vice-Chair Pat Bradford and Josie Barnhart have previously been more sympathetic to Gates and her concerns.

It’s far from the first controversy over Stamped, which has been targeted in a number of states, according to an index maintained by PEN America. In April, the Pickens County NAACP in South Carolina, along with some district families, filed suit against the school board for its removal ofStamped. This decision overruled both the school and district committees' decision to keep it in the libraries.

So, what comes next for the challenge here in New Hanover County?

Next steps

Gates told WHQR, “I am awaiting direction after an initial advisement from the Chair that they had received my request.”

Board Chair Pete Wildeboer initially said it, “will be discussed in July,” but declined to provide further details. Later, at the board’s June 26 agenda meeting, they decided their next vote on the book will be on July 11. They will either deny Gates’ request to remove the book from the school system and uphold the committees’ decisions to let it remain — or to conduct a public hearing at a later date.

If they vote for the hearing, then the board gets to decide how that’s conducted. For example, they could have a document-only review, or they could have one with testimony about the book. There's also a potential scenario where Gates could present her arguments against the book as instructional material, and then Assistant Superintendent Dawn Brinson would argue in favor of the district’s decisions.

In March, a state-wide collaboration of newsrooms studied book bans and found that many challenges come from people who haven't read the books — or haven't read them completely. That's in part because of groups like the Pavement Education Project, a North Carolina-based conservative group, that provides what are essentially Cliff's Notes for challenging books, including quotes with page number references.

But when it comes to the school board's upcoming decision, members are being asked to read Stamped.

Board member Stephanie Kraybill said, “the Board agreed to read the book Stamped before we decided whether or not to conduct a hearing for Mrs. Gates’ appeal of the district curriculum committee’s decision. We all have copies of the book and should be reading it.”

At the agenda review, Kraybill asked Wildeboer if all board members should finish the book by the 11th. The board’s outgoing attorney Jason Weber said that he’d have to brief the members in closed session about the “legal implications” of reading the book. WHQR asked the district for clarification, and they said, “Mr. Weber confirmed that board members will be reading the book as part of their review.”

Parent’s appeal, teacher’s response

Right after Gates submitted her appeal to the district committee, she attended the board’s March public comment period to say about the book, “We live in the freest nation in the world with the most successful governing document of any nation. Only the Constitution, biblical and moral principles stand in the way of tyranny.[...]. Let's teach our kids to be aware of our country's mistakes and learn from them, educate our children, not indoctrinate them through books like Stamped.”

Gates has attended many of these public comment periods, making a range of claims, including that the United States is “not a democracy” because it is a “constitutional republic” that “honors the hierarchy of God above the Constitution, above ‘we the people,’ who are above the government." She also argued that 18th-century laws “linked the Christian religion and public education together.”

Kelli Kidwell, the AP teacher who chose Stamped as one of the 6 main texts for her college-level course, said, “I'm picking documents that show rhetorical strategies, and if those sort of strategies are effective. And the fact that it is eliciting this kind of response shows that Jason Reynolds effectively engages audience members with his book because they're responding in such strong ways.”

Gates said that she feels that Reynolds is claiming America is “irredeemably racist from its inception while offering solutions that create division and promote reverse racism and political activism. We are a constitutional republic, and that’s not the way this county is designed to operate.”

But Kidwell said in her class students learn various perspectives on American ideals.

“Deciding what things are un-American or American, or whether a certain type of thought is acceptable or unacceptable, that isn't in the hands of a small group of people. The whole idea of our country is that all of us come together, and there is a free sharing of ideas and beliefs and thinking, and there are people who are diametrically opposed to one another, and both of them are allowed to exist, and both of them are allowed to have their opinions,” Kidwell said.

The district’s MTAC committee results

On March 29, the district’s MTAC committee, composed of nine members, said they “followed the procedures found in the NHCS document ‘Reconsideration Procedures for Instructional Materials’ and voted to uphold the School-level MTAC recommendation.”

*You can find their full report at the end of this story.

The district committee members included: an Assistant Superintendent, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, the Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer, three curriculum specialists, the NHCS principal of the year, the NHCS teacher of the year, and the lead media coordinator.

The committee’s report addressed the complaints found in Gates’ February 13 appeal to the district.

Gates said while she doesn’t object to the book’s curriculum alignment to the AP and North Carolina standards, “it’s about the ideas presented, the manner and tone they are presented [...] [that] might facilitate students’ interpreting this argument/opinion piece as truth and fact.”

She also added that the book did not “allu[de] to Jefferson’s thoughts on black people” in the Notes on the State of Virginiaaccurately. And that reading Stamped would “lead to a revisionist understanding [of history] by students.”

However, a 2018 report entitled, “President’s Commission on Slavery and the University” written by University of Virginia academics found that Jefferson’s writings in his Notes on the State of Virginia did “articulate a white supremacist understanding of racial difference and racial hierarchy (one where white always rule over black), but one that was rooted in an understanding of white and black as basically different species.”

Gates complained that Stamped's citations didn’t accurately reflect the source material; the district committee found that they did.

Gates also noted the book’s “inflammatory language [...] and promoting political activists like Angela Davis, a known communist (the book really glorifies her), Malcolm X, and Black Lives Matter is unproductive to an open and honest conversation on history and inappropriate for a classroom setting.”

However, the district committee mainly supported the sentiments of Kidwell and the Ashley MTAC committee in that AP students are not expected to take on any perspective in any instructional material that they read.

“AP students are expected to analyze different perspectives from their own, and no points on an AP Exam are awarded for agreement with a viewpoint. AP students are not required to feel certain ways about themselves or the course content. AP courses instead develop students’ abilities to assess the credibility of sources, draw conclusions, and make up their own minds. [...] AP students are not expected or asked to subscribe to any one specific set of cultural or political values, but are expected to have the maturity to analyze perspectives different from their own and to question the meaning, purpose, or effect of such content within the literary work as a whole,” the committee found.

The committee added that the book was not meant necessarily to teach history but to teach rhetoric, one of the main goals of the AP Language and Composition course, saying “[...] it was a well-sourced, rhetorical argument from a minority perspective.”

Gates did concede that while “I was grateful that my daughter received an exemption and alternative assignment, my concern for the content of this book and its continued use in our NHC classrooms warrants my appeal.”

Public feedback on book removals

At a school board meeting in April, members discussed a newly proposed ‘district book review committee’ in addition to the already established district and individual school MTAC committees.

Board member Melissa Mason introduced the idea that more parents and community members would populate a new book review committee. For now, it’s proposed that the seven-member committee would only have one teacher and one media specialist.

Mason said, “This is the people’s choice — the people’s standards to be set.”

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

But at this April meeting the public comment was split, with slightly more people opposing the proposed committee. And when the board solicited questions and comments for their town hall in that same month, they received 556 submissions.

About 9% of those remarks specifically mentioned books or Mason’s proposed committee. 7% (39) were against any type of censorship of books or this proposed committee. Less than 1% (3) were in support of these actions. About 6 commenters asked further questions about the committee and its purpose.

Related: Top NHCS town hall issues: proposed book-review committee, curriculum concerns

In defense of keeping remaining policies on evaluating books, one commenter said, “Why is the board entertaining a proposal to review school books when there are other much more pressing issues to address, such as assisting low-performing schools, the racial gap in achievement, infrastructure, and adequate teacher and staff compensation? This concern seems to be politically motivated by a vocal minority seeking censorship [...].”

Another commenter added, “Why is book banning on the table? Please do not let fearful people get in the way of education – let teachers teach. Back them up, and let kids read.”

A commenter identifying as a Republican wrote, “Why are we focusing on banning material from schools if we are going to let students have cell phones? There is already a protocol for parents to go through if they do not want their child reading certain material. [...] I begin to question why I voted some of you in to [sic] office. I am even a Republican but becoming very disgruntled after listening to the last board meeting.”

Some commenters did agree with the proposed committee. One wrote, “Do you agree that drag queens and sexually explicit books should NOT be in the schools? If you do not agree, then why? We are all sick and tired of the perversion that is allowed in our schools and it must stop.”

Another one said, “Are there books with homosexuality, sodomy, and inappropriate nudity and adult themes depicted in any of these books offered at the schools? [...] I’ll homeschool my child myself if that’s the case.”

To sign-up for the July 11 Call to the Audience, click here. The meeting starts at 5:00 p.m. at 1805 S. 13th St, Wilmington.

Below: The district's Media and Technology Advisory Committee (MTAC) report

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