Challenge denied, school board votes 3-2 to retain novel
by Allison Haver
After listening to parent Chastity Lesesne and 10th grade honors English teacher Mary Kent Whitaker for 30 minutes each during a third and final appeal hearing Thursday, the Watauga County Board of Education voted 3-2 to fully retain the novel "The House of the Spirits," a novel by Isabel Allende.
Board members Ron Henries, Barbara Kinsey and Brenda Reese voted to uphold the second appeal committee's decision to retain the book in the curriculum while Chairman Dr. Lee Warren and Vice Chairwoman Delora Hodges voted against the motion. Hodges made a motion earlier to partially retain the book by removing it from the required reading list but keeping it in the school's library, but the motion failed.
"I didn't know what to expect," Whitakers said after the hearing. "I'm thrilled for all students and thrilled that the freedom to read has been upheld and the students right to read has been upheld."
Lesesne said that she respects Whitaker and "could not be more supportive" of all the school's teachers.
"Battlelines were drawn from the beginning and I never wanted that," she said.
The 1982 fictional work, originally in Spanish, tells the story of three generations of the Trueba family as they interact in a spirit-filled world amid turbulent social revolution.
Lesesne described the book as "horrific," "graphic" and "immoral" and said the challenging themes and ideas the book presents are lost within the novel's graphic descriptions of rape, prostitution, violence, abuse, abortion and death.
The board hearing was held in courtroom one of the Watauga County Courthouse at 842 West King St., instead of at the Margaret Gragg Education Center as originally planned, although a notice of the location change was not given to the public within 48 hours of the meeting, as required by North Carolina's open meetings law.
According to school board advisor Asheville attorney Chris Campbell, in order to comply with the North Carolina open meetings law, a procedural maneuver was made to facilitate the location change: A majority of the board first met at the Margaret Gragg Education Center, went into recess and then reconvened at the courthouse.
Campbell said this allowed the board to lawfully hold the meeting at the courthouse as planned.
Members of the board of education changed the venue for the meeting, late on Wednesday, based on the safety recommendations of local law enforcement due to an anticipated large crowd.
At the courthouse, more than 200 people gathered for the school board meeting. The courthouse provides seating for approximately 205 people, about twice the capacity of the original location.
The hearing was not a public forum and only Lesesne and Whitaker spoke to the board Thursday.
Lesesne addressed the board first, and for a final time explained why she felt "The House of the Spirits" should be removed from the required reading list. She also gave the board a petition she said contained 1,500 names from Watauga County community members "who agree with the challenge."
Lesesne said that there was no class discussion available for students who choose an alternate reading option was "discriminatory."
"Is this book so educationally necessary that it's worth to boot students out of the classroom," she said.
Watauga County School Policy inconsistencies dealing with different types of media appropriate for students were brought before the board.
In the WCS policy, Lesesne noted that any video rated PG-13 or R requires prior parent approval, but "books get a pass."
Lesesne told the board that the novel contains more than 50 depictions of sexual deviancy, which in her opinion, makes the enforcement of the school's public display of affection policy seem "ridiculous."
She also read a sexually explicit passage from the novel: "How does that make you feel right now," she asked the board members.
Lesesne said she had no intention of censorship or banning books and that she was simply asking for the book to be removed from the required reading list for the sophomore honors English class and to give every student equal educational opportunities.
Mary Kent Whitaker presented to the board next.
According to Whitaker, even with all the attention given to the book by the challenge, 93 percent of her students chose to read the book; only four opted for the alternate option.
Whitaker said that no student is forced to read "The House of the Spirits" and four options are available for sophomore students.
Students can take the sophomore honors English class and read the book, take the honors English class and choose the alternate reading, take an online course or take a regular English class.
"Teachers should not have to defend a book recommended by the state," Whitaker said.
Through the themes of the book and the book's high level of challenge, students "not only come away as better readers, they come away as better citizens," she said.
Whitaker said she handles the difficult adult content in a careful and thoughtful manner.
"I respect my students," Whitaker said.
Beth Satterfield, a parent of three children in Watauga County schools, said Thursday after the meeting that many students were afraid to speak out in support of alternatives to "The House of the Spirits" -- for fear of being ostracized.
"I've talked with several parents, and they've told their child to keep their nose to the ground and get through it. That's not acceptable for education in Watauga County," Satterfield said. "That's a big part of the 93 percent (of students Whitaker said had parental permission to read the book) -- they're just keeping their nose to the ground and getting through it. That's appalling to me.
Kauner Michael, a WHS junior who read the book as a sophomore, had a different opinion about the board's decision.
"It shouldn't have been close. It should have been a no-brainer in favor of education," said Michael. "I'm excited that future students will get an opportunity to read this book in sophomore English. It was one of the most enlightening books I've ever read. A lot of life lessons contained in the book ... and I think it helps to make us all global citizens."
Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina were present during the meeting and also held a community rally and news conference to urge officials to keep "The House of the Spirits" in the Watauga County high school honors curriculum, before the board meeting.
The rally and news conference consisted of more than 50 Watauga County community members, including parents and students and representatives from the ACLU of North Carolina.
ACLU of North Carolina's communication director Mike Meno said that the foundation has been following the book challenge from the beginning and had been contacted by concerned community members.
Watauga High School students also organized a read-in at the school on Thursday morning.
For almost five months "The House of the Spirits" book challenge has divided members of the Watauga County community and consumed a large portion of the board of education's discussions.
Local law enforcement involvement came into play when anonymous letters concerning the book were sent to several teachers at Watauga High School on Feb. 17.
The Boone Police Department is still working with the district attorney's office, Watauga County Sheriff's Office and school officials to track down the author of the letters to see what the intent was behind them.
According to Lt. Chris Hatton with the Boone Police Department, the teachers who received the letters said they felt "threatened."
"It is one thing to disagree with a policy or a procedure or a book used in the schools. It is a completely different and unacceptable thing to threaten someone because they hold a different opinion," WCS interim superintendent David Fonseca said in a previous statement.
As of Thursday afternoon, there were no developments in the case, according to Capt. Andy Le Beau with the Boone Police Department.
The challenge began in October 2013, when Lesesne, challenged Whitaker's selection of the novel as a sophomore honors English reading assignment.
According to Lesesne, she read the book in its entirety before entering her formal complaint and after she was "flooded" with emails, calls and texts from parents who felt the same.
Whitaker does offer Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" as an alternative reading, but Lesesne said the alternative is independent, meaning her son would not benefit from class discussions and instruction.
The book is simply not the type of book Lesesne said she wants her teenage son reading as he and his peers are being fashioned into quality citizens.
"The House of the Spirits" is a recommended reading for 10th graders in the state's common core curriculum and is considered to have a high Lexile score, a measure of literary difficulty.
The challenge inspired a letter in support of the book from the author, Allende, and a teach-in at Appalachian State University.
Prior to the board's decision Thursday, two committees also voted to retain the book.
For images of the book challenge visit:
For more stories relating to the book challenge to "The House of the Spirits," visit: