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Community, students join heated book debate at Forsyth County Board of Education meeting
07152020 Board of Education 1

Parents, students and community members completely filled the Forsyth County Board of Education conference room Tuesday, Feb. 15, to advocate either for or against the removal of books from school media centers.

The board heard from more than 20 speakers during the public participation section of its first regular meeting since leaders from Forsyth County Schools announced last month that they had removed eight books from media centers across the district for “sexually explicit content.”

Tuesday night was the first time community members had filled the room for a board meeting since the start of a debate surrounding the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan that began in May 2021.

While some speakers commented on the DEI plan on Tuesday, the conversation has widely shifted to the newer local and nationwide debate about school media center books.

Many parents and community members who spoke said they believe there is a much larger collection of books available in the schools that should be removed for sexual or inappropriate content while others believe parents may be specifically targeting books by minorities and those in the LGBTQ community.

Some also believe it should simply be left up to families to decide what is or is not appropriate for students.

Before the meeting Tuesday, parents and community members discussed reading some of the sexual or inappropriate passages from these books aloud during the meeting.

Wes McCall, chairman of the board, began public participation by reminding the crowd of board policy and asking that everyone be respectful to each other and refrain from “profane comments.”

“If …. anything that you might read tonight is inappropriate to be stated in public, you will be instructed to stop,” McCall told the crowd.

Just a few minutes into public comments, McCall stopped one of the first speakers, Alison Hair, after she attempted to read a passage from the book, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is about a 9-year-old boy who loses his father during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

The book is accepted by several large booksellers as a Young Adult novel appropriate for high school-aged kids. Barnes & Noble and Amazon both list the age range for the book as 14 years and older. The book’s 2011 film adaption is rated as PG-13 for sex and nudity, violence, profanity and more, according to IMDb.

Hair read from one section in the book that contained some sexual language.

“If you continue with your statement, just please [go back to the rules],” McCall said to Hair. “We have other people who are younger in [the room]. I understand the point.”

Parents and community members in the crowd began laughing as McCall explained the content was not appropriate to be read aloud in a public setting or in front of younger children.

“We have not had an opportunity to vet this,” McCall continued. “We also have a vetting system in place. These books are not read out loud to students.”

Hair said that if the passage cannot be read inside the conference room, then it should not be available to students at FCS’ schools. Several other speakers agreed with this sentiment, saying there are at least 100 other books available to kids in the school system with similar passages and sexually explicit content.

What those in favor of book removals in FCS had to say

Several speakers at the meeting told the board that the current book challenge and review process is not efficient enough for making sure books containing inappropriate passages are removed from school media centers.

The current process allows parents, students, staff or Forsyth County residents to challenge a book at individual schools, which starts a now 30-day process to give the school’s Local Media Committee time to read and review the book and then determine whether or not it should be removed.

The recent district-wide removal of eight books from all of FCS’ media centers, however, did not follow this regular formal process.

While some said they were thankful for Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden’s and the district’s decision to overstep this formal process and remove books that school staff had reviewed and deemed inappropriate, they said there is much more work to do.

Officials with Forsyth County Schools have stated that, for now, the original eight books are the only ones that will be removed from schools across the district. Other book removals must be done through the book challenge process at individual schools.

Forsyth resident Cindy Martin told the board that removing all the books that she and a group of community members said contain sexually explicit content could take years through this process.

“That’s unacceptable,” Martin said. “We are asking for the superintendent to conduct an independent audit. If he does not, then the superintendent is in dereliction of his duties, and we demand that the board relieve him of his position immediately.”

Several others also demanded that the board conduct a full audit of media center books available to students throughout the county and remove any books that contain sexual or inappropriate content.

Forsyth resident Florencia Valdes said that while they are calling for the removal of certain books from school media centers, “we are not banning books.”

She pointed out that many of the students and community members opposed to the book removals who attended the meeting Tuesday brought copies of the books currently being challenged to read as part of a “read-in” protest.

Valdes said their access to these books is proof that they are not banned in Forsyth.

“They are widely available for purchase outside the walls of these schools,” Valdes said.


What those against book removals in FCS had to say

Other speakers at the meeting questioned the true intention behind community members’ sudden call for the removal of books.

Some of the parents and residents advocating for these removals have also recently specifically asked the board and district leaders about separating media center books that contain LGBTQ characters or themes.

Local social media pages and posts have also shown parents and residents questioning whether certain books with LGBTQ characters are appropriate for school media centers.

Several students who spoke at the meeting said they believe residents are calling for these removals based on personal beliefs.

At the meeting, speakers only referred to sexual content as a reason to remove certain books, and the district stated in January that books would not be removed based on personal or religious beliefs.

James Liming, a junior at Denmark High School, told the board that he is disappointed with the school system and their choice to remove eight books from the school libraries. By taking part in the controversy, he said they created an unsafe environment for students, bringing what has become a political debate into the schools.

“You have established a reason for people to send hate to school librarians’ personal emails,” Liming said. “You have fed the fire that aims to eliminate all [LGBTQ] books from all school libraries.”

He said many of the other books he has seen mentioned on local social media pages as inappropriate have been written by LGBTQ authors.

“When you accept this behavior, it is seen by everyone as encouraging it,” Liming continued. “By accepting this behavior, the homophobic residents of this county will see it as a green light to continue their bigotry.”

Another student, Shivi Mehta, also said the book passages that parents and residents are reading as proof of sexually explicit material in certain books are taken out of much larger contexts. When put into context, “these scenes are nowhere near as bad as they are made out to be.”

Other students who spoke at the meeting said definitions of what is appropriate or not also vary between families. Many books meant for teens and young adults contain some sexual content.

Finding a compromise

After listening to both sides debate this issue over the last month, some community members suggested that they find a compromise that gives parents reassurance that their students are not reading material they would find inappropriate while avoiding the removal of books from media centers.

Lambert High School graduate James Barker offered solutions such as parental warnings on the covers of books that may contain explicit material or automatic emails that could let parents know what books their child is checking out at school.

Currently, parents already have the option to leave a digital note for school librarians to let them know what their child is or is not allowed to read while checking out a book.

“Banning books outright is something that I personally don’t feel is a solution,” Barker said. “We live in a modern time. We can make modern solutions.”

Dion Evans, a pastor with Imago Dei Church, agreed, saying that the banning or removal of books is “a slippery slope” that could lead to residents asking for the removal of every book they might find offensive.

“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a standard,” Evans said. “What I’m saying is we have to have nuance. Two things can be true. A book can be inappropriate, but there can also be filters put in.”

For parents interested in reviewing available media center books with their child, FCS’ media center catalog can be found through Destiny, an online library software.