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School board chair: Alert parents of book choices

Is your teenager reading a “woke” book?

Isle of Wight County School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr argues parents have a right to know.

At the Board’s Sept. 9 meeting, Carr asked Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton to look into the possibility of creating a system that would email a student’s parents every time he or she checked out a book from a school library and allow them to review its contents. This, she argued, would provide “needed transparency” amid a “growing number of controversial books” available to Smithfield High students participating in the school library’s “Read Woke” challenge.

“Woke” has become a slang term for an awareness of injustice, particularly racism, in society. Smithfield High School debuted its version of the nationwide “Read Woke” challenge in November 2020 and has reprised it for the 2021-22 school year.

The challenge, which Georgia high school librarian Cicely Lewis created last year, involves reading one or more books that — in her words — challenge a social norm, give voice to the voiceless, provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised, seek to change the status quo or have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group.

Among the 70 qualifying titles available at Smithfield High’s library are “Being Jazz,” a memoir by reality TV star Jazz Jennings on her high school experience as a transgender teenager; “I Am Malala,” an autobiography by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who at age 15 was shot by the Taliban on the bus home from school in Pakistan; and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Jason Reynolds.

While Carr acknowledged the challenge is optional rather than required reading for students, “These are not adults in high school; they are still children,” she said. “They’re not adults and for this kind of content to be available for these children without parental involvement, knowing what their children are reading, I don’t think we’ve done enough to make the transparency that is needed.”

Carr made her remarks after a number of county residents spoke against the challenge during the portion of the meeting reserved for public comments. Heidi Swartz of Smithfield took particular issue with “The Hate U Give,” a novel by Angie Thomas about a 16-year-old girl who sees her childhood best friend fatally shot by a police officer.

Swartz, who brought a copy of the book to the lectern, said it contains “89 F-words” and “a lot of cop hate.”

“These books do not promote unity; they promote further divide,” Swartz said.

“These books promote drug use, group sex, gang violence, racial stereotypes and an anti-cop sentiment,” added Jason Maresh of Windsor.

Swartz and Maresh had previously written a joint letter to Thornton on Aug. 29, arguing that the books in the “woke challenge” further “disparage white people as privileged, inherently racist, oppressors and victimizers” and “are designed to instill the feeling of discomfort and guilt upon white children” and “rage in black children against their ‘oppressive’ white supremacist country.”

“If you don’t look back into these books and pull those out, you’re as disgusting as the people that wrote them,” said Volpe Boykin of Carrsville.

Carr’s suggestion of an email notification system that would alert parents every time their son or daughter checked out a book would be an “overwhelming burden on staff” and “not as easy as you think,” Thornton said.

Denise Tynes, who represents the Smithfield District on Isle of Wight’s School Board, condemned Carr’s parental oversight proposal as effectively “censoring” what students can read.

“Even when I was in high school, that being years ago, we had a few parents, one or two, (who said,) ‘I don’t want my child reading that book,’” Tynes said. “Well, fine. Your child don’t have to read that book, but maybe my parent didn’t have a problem with it because they wanted to expose me to the things that are going on in life. We are training our students when they leave Smithfield High School, Windsor High School, they’re going out there to a world that is not censored for them. … These young people we are training to become young adults in our society.”

Hardy District representative Alvin Wilson did not comment on the matter, but Windsor District representative Julia Perkins agreed with Tynes.

“When kids get in high school they need to have the opportunity to explore different options,” Perkins said. “They may be exploring options with sexuality, their own sexuality, and they need to have the opportunity to read books on gender, and maybe some of these books that … people are taking exception to have to do with that. But we cannot censor, I do not believe, the kinds of materials or the kinds of books that libraries accept in schools, and censor those, and not make them available.”

Censorship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, entails the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films or news that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security. The U.S. Supreme Court, according to a 2009 article by law professor Anuj C. Desai of the University of Wisconsin, ruled 5-4 in 1982 that the U.S. Constitution protects the “right to receive information and ideas,” and as such, school officials removing books from a school library based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds would amount to an “official suppression of ideas.” In that case, a Long Island, New York, school district, from 1976 through 1982, banned books it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic” or “just plain filthy.”

But it was Boykin, not Carr, who proposed actually pulling the offending books from library shelves. Carr didn’t detail what actions, if any, a school would take should parents, upon receiving the proposed email notification, object to their child reading a particular book.

“Stamped” and “The Hate U Give” are both listed on the American Library Association’s list of the top 10 most challenged books of 2020. The list tracks documented requests to remove materials from schools.

But the association itself, as Tynes read from its website, “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.” According to the association’s website, the 1982 Supreme Court case, now known as Island Trees School District v. Pico, inspired the creation of the group’s nationwide “Banned Books Week” campaign, which will run Sept. 26 through Oct. 2 this year.

Renee Dial, the School Board’s newly appointed Newport District representative, agreed with Carr that, as the mother of a Smithfield High School senior, she would have preferred the school system be more transparent.

“I knew nothing about this challenge as a parent, and her dad didn’t either,” Dial said.

“If we don’t want her to read a book, she’s not reading a book, period,” she added. “If I don’t like it, that’s it … that’s the structure in our home.”

While she said she wasn’t necessarily in support of taking the offending books off the shelf, “I would have liked to have known about this challenge,” Dial said.