21 community members speak out about book challenge
by Allison Haver
A third appeal of the "House of Spirits" book challenge, an item on the board's agenda, was a major topic of discussion and the reason behind the large turnout.
The challenge is in regard to a 10th-grade honors English class novel, "House of Spirits," whose reading was protested by a Watauga High School parent, Chastity Lesesne, in October 2013.
In October, Lesesne said that the challenging themes and ideas the book presents are lost within the novel's graphic descriptions of rape, prostitution, violence, abuse, abortion and death, and that the book also contained numerous curse words.
Watauga County Schools' administrators announced on Monday that the school board meeting would be held in the Watauga High School auditorium rather than Margaret E. Gragg Education Center in anticipation of a sizable crowd.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, board members and members of the community heard from 21 individuals about their opinions of the book challenge.
"Tonight, we get to exercise the right not many people have around the world, agree to disagree, which is what makes this nation the great nation that it is," Interim Superintendent David Fonseca said.
After listening to each side, no action was taken; however the board set a date and time to hear the appeal.
"The board has decided to hear this at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27 with an alternate date March 6 at the board office," board of education chairman Dr. Lee Warren said.
An equal number of individuals in support of the challenge, and individuals who disagreed with the challenge -- and one individual with a neutral point of view -- stood before the board and community members and expressed their thoughts and opinions of the novel.
The two sides alternated turns speaking and were told by Warren to "speak to the board, not to any individual and remember to focus on the issue and not on specific people."
Each person had three minutes to speak to the board.
First to speak, Hal Lesesne, who is the husband of the original protestor of the book, said that the "challenge has become distorted."
Lesesne said that the challenge has nothing to do with censorship, and that the original request was to only remove the book from the required reading list, and not altogether from the school.
"We have no problem with the teacher or Watauga High School, just a problem with age-appropriate level," Lesesne said.
Second to speak, and in favor of retaining the novel, was Craig Fischer.
"Censorship is a slippery slope," Fischer said. "Watauga High School students are young adults and need to be encouraged to think deeply," he said.
Fischer also said that teachers in local schools and administration, including Fonseca, had already voted to retain the book during a second appeal in December 2013.
Several high school students, in addition to parents and other adults, also spoke about the issue.
Among the students to speak against the challenge was Patrick Williamson, student body president and student representative of the Watauga County Board of Education.
Williamson emphasized that he was speaking as an individual, and not as a representative of the board.
"As the student body present I serve as a link between students and administration," Williamson said.
He said he was speaking on behalf of a "very large number of students" that had approached him voicing their concerns of keeping the book in the curriculum.
"It's a shame that the education process has been hindered by this book challenge," Williamson said.
He said that students should not have to be put in a position where they have to "fight for their education."
Kauner Michael, another WHS student speaking against the protest, gave Warren a student-driven petition with 375 signatures in favor of retaining the novel.
Elle Sloboda, a junior at WHS, found "The House of the Spirits" inappropriate when she took Whitaker's class. Sloboda said that while she respected Whitaker, she felt "disrespected" to have to sit in a hallway for the alternate course load. Sloboda said that when she asked Whitaker why she couldn't go to the library, Whitaker said, "It would take too long."
"For six weeks I was sent to work in the hallway for 30 to 40 minutes," she said. Sloboda said she felt ostracized and punished for choosing an alternative reading assignment.
"I have read all the Facebook posts and newspaper articles and I'm disappointed how one teacher's love for one book has divided our community," Sloboda said.
In a presentation given to the district committee on Dec. 12, 2013, Whitaker said that the time spent discussing the novel, "House of Spirits," was a very small percentage of instructional time.
"We discuss the work for an average of 20 minutes of a 90-minute period during this four-week unit, Whitaker said. "This is only about 5 percent of a student's entire semester's time with me. The other 95 percent of the semester, the student is in the classroom."
Whitaker said that only six students out of 120 requested an alternate reading last year. Of those six, two remained in the classroom, three went to the library during discussion and direct instruction and only one student opted to read and work in the hall instead of the library.
"I would never require one student to sit in the hall, while I give the option of working in the library to the other students reading the alternate. That would be wrong and makes no sense," Whitaker said.
Craig Fischer, Susan Reed, Woody McKay, Emma Dentsh, Kauner Michael, Patrick Williamson, Jenny Schlenker, Greg McClure, Emily Haas and Trudy Moss spoke against the challenge.
Hal Lesesne, Beth Satterfield, Todd Chasteen, Ali Maupin, Beth Littlejohn, Cliff Baldwin, Elle Sloboda, Mike Northern, Josh Kanoy, Ken Sevensky spoke in favor of the challenge.
Tiffany Christian, a school board candidate, spoke last neither in favor of, or not in favor of, keeping the book in the curriculum.
"There is a lack of common understanding of what is age appropriate," Christian said. "We need to come together and come up with common language as to what age appropriate means based on science and research," she said.
Christian said that is if the board just "acted" and resolved the current issue, nothing would be resolved in the long run.
"There is always going to be another book," she said.
This is the third and final appeal of the "House of Spirits" book challenge.
Two appeals have been filed in which two committees voted to retain the novel. In October, the Media/Technology Advisory Committee for Watauga High School, which is chaired by Assistant Principal Craig Wright and is comprised of students, parents and teachers, voted unanimously to retain the book; and in December, a second review committee comprised of Fonseca, other county educators and a community representative voted 5 to 0 to retain the novel.
According to the Watauga County Schools policy on selection of educational media resources, if the complainant or media coordinator is not satisfied with the decision received from the first two appeal committees, he or she may file a written appeal with the board of education within 15 school days of the review committee's decision.
The board of education will be the third and final level of appeal through the school system.
UPDATE: This story has been modified from its original version
to provide additional information.