CHARLOTTE, N.C. — School board elections in the Carolinas are already underway for several school districts as North Carolina begins early voting. A question voters want to know from board members is how they view bans and restrictions on books.
The next group of elected board members in districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Cabarrus County Schools, and Union County Schools will likely face questions about policies in their districts.
At CMS a board policy mandates a committee of people who decide what books should and shouldn’t be in individual schools. The current policy tells them to avoid judging books by single passages.
"Weigh the merits of the item against its alleged weaknesses (considering the whole item instead of isolated passages)," the board policy states.
It’s been a common theme at board meetings: reading singular passages considered risky and inappropriate.
At a recent Charlotte board meeting, a member of the Mecklenburg chapter of Moms for Liberty read some lines from the book, "This Book is Gay." She claimed the book was found by a student in a 7th grade classroom.
The book is described by its publisher as a bestselling young adult non-fiction book on sexuality and gender.
The principal of the school, Collinswood Language Academy, told parents in a written note that the book was part of the teacher’s personal library that is housed in an off-limits section of the classroom.
"During the teacher’s absence, the book was removed from the teacher’s personal space and placed in the in-classroom student library, resulting in an unintended circulation of the book," the principal's note explains.
"Any teacher that puts material like this on his or her bookshelf is either a bad teacher or a pedophile who grooms children," Christy Wade, a member of Moms for Liberty, said to school board members.
Internal emails, requested by the Mecklenburg County Chapter of Moms for Liberty, show at one time the book was on a “book tasting assignment" at Jay M. Robinson Middle School.
The principal said it was a 2020, optional assignment that required parents’ signatures. The principal said he asked all 7th-grade teachers to “remove the existing files," if they still exist.
The conservative parents’ advocacy group says it’s still not enough.
"I don't want books removed; I just want informed consent for parents to be able to opt into a system that restricts access to certain levels of content," Brooke Weiss, Mecklenburg Moms for Liberty Chair, said.
Weiss said she's talked to school officials about a rating system similar to motion pictures rating systems. She also wants books that are challenged and successfully removed from one school building to automatically be removed district-wide.
"The teachers will be doing repetitive work that's already been done. So my proposal was to have it done at a district level," Weiss said.
The same fight to restrict, or at least reconsider books, is also happening in Cabarrus County. Currently, a proposal is going through the district to reconsider who has the power to challenge books in the district.
Experts say appropriateness in books is subjective and districts must be careful.
“When receiving petitions to remove material have processes and procedures on the books that they can follow, and that they follow them in a clear, consistent and fair manner," Jonathan Freidman, the PEN America director of free expression and education, said.
Weiss said despite public critics, she has found common ground with people who think books containing explicit scenes shouldn’t be accessible.
"There was a gentleman directly behind Christy that literally put his fingers in his ears," Weiss said. "That man found it just as offensive as, you know, Christy, a white conservative woman.”
The conversations about what books belong in schools don't live in a vacuum and are part of a national push by groups like Mom for Liberty, which largely self-identify themselves as conservative groups.
On its main website, there is a toolkit for parents to learn which books are in a child's school, how to opt out of readings, and a template of the book rating system Weiss suggested.
"Ultimately, the role of the library is to serve a diverse public and that means catering to and being able to service, different interests within communities and different ideas of what is age-appropriate," Freidman said.
The procedure to challenge or ban books in most districts is a board policy. That means any changes must happen by the board. School board elections open up an opportunity to change board members and change previous school board procedures.
"My proposal is just meant as the beginning of a reasonable conversation, a meaningful conversation to find a solution that works for everyone," Weiss said.