CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the district represented by Dianne Bellamy-Small. The correction has been made; TCB regrets the error.
The Guilford County School Board voted to keep a challenged book as part of a school’s curriculum on Tuesday afternoon, thus closing the chapter on a saga that began more than six months ago.
The school board held a special meeting to hear a challenge to Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward. The book had been assigned by English teacher Holly Weaver to be taught in her AP English class at Northern High School earlier this year. After assigning the book, two parents — Kimberly Magnussen and Elena Wachendorfer — brought a formal complaint to the school, initiating a challenge process. In May, when the book was first challenged, Northern High School’s media and technology advisory committee voted 11-1 to retain the book as part of the school’s curriculum after hearing prepared statements from Magnussen and Wachendorfer.
As part of the formal complaint process for challenging books, Magnussen and Wachendorfer then appealed the committee’s decision to the district level, and then finally to the school board on Tuesday.
The parents objected to the book because of descriptions of sex between the book’s main character, 15-year-old Esch, and 19-year-old Manny. Like during May’s meeting, they called the descriptions “pornographic,” “graphic” and “inappropriate.”
Despite the parents’ appeal, the school board voted 6-2 in favor of retaining Salvage the Bones as part of Northern Guilford High School’s AP English curriculum. The two members who voted to remove the book were Republican board members Linda Welborn (District 4) and Pat Tillman (District 3). District 2 representative Anita Sharpe was absent from the meeting.
Prior to voting, Tillman made a substitute motion to keep the book in the curriculum but to add parental consent prior to assignment, but the motion failed. A similar process already existed for this book when the teacher, Holly Weaver, put a content warning statement in the educational portal that is accessible to both students and parents. Weaver also gave the option for students to read a different book entirely or to read Salvage the Bones but to skip the graphic parts.
During the almost two-hour meeting, school board members heard from both parents as well as Natalie Strange, the district’s director of library media services who argued to keep the book.
In the end, most of the board members stated that the book, despite its graphic depictions of sex, had educational merit and was appropriate for 17- and 18-year-olds in a college-level course.
In an emotional moment, District 5 Board Member Deborah Napper said that reading the book was difficult, but that by the end of it, she wanted to help Esch.
“That’s the value of literature,” she said. “When it changes your entire thought process.”
T. Dianne Bellamy-Small of District 1 said that as a Black woman who grew up during Jim Crow, having a diverse curriculum of books is important.
“When I went to school, schools were segregated,” Bellamy Small said. “All the books that I had to deal with were books about white people. I didn’t learn about the struggles of Black people except for slavery.”
Welborn, who voted to remove the book, said that she was concerned with a changing set of standards for the school district when it comes to sexual descriptions in books.
“The level of what is acceptable is shifting,” she said. “A lot of parents aren’t on that page to shift…. At what point are we crossing the line?”
Welborn repeatedly gave the example of Fifty Shades of Grey, asking the board if that would be an acceptable book to read in schools. To that, district attorney Jill Wilson and legal counsel Elizabeth Troutman said that the district already has guiderails in place that would prevent inappropriate texts from being assigned.
Bellamy-Small also argued that a difficult book like Salvage the Bones has the ability to broaden students’ mindsets and to encourage thoughtful conversation, something that often only happens in schools.
“We can’t box our kids in from learning,” she said.
District staff told TCB that the book cannot be challenged for another two years.
Holly Weaver, who moved and no longer works for Guilford County Schools but watched the meeting online, sent TCB a statement about the decision by the school board.
“Today was a win for democracy,” Weaver said. “The board’s decision to retain Salvage the Bones is a testament that Guilford County Schools stands by their core values: diversity, empathy, equity, innovation and integrity. Surrounding school districts should be inspired by the way GCS is protecting our democracy by protecting the freedom to read.”
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