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Originally published: 2013-11-08 11:29:51
Last modified: 2013-11-08 11:30:36

Opinions abound as book challenge progresses

The painstaking book challenge process is continuing within Watauga County Schools, and school board members and staff are being bombarded with opinions as they brace for possible appeals.

Last month, Chastity Lesesne, the mother of a sophomore honors English student at Watauga High School, challenged the class's study of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits."

Lesesne said that the novel was graphic and immoral in its descriptions of rape, sex and violence.

On Oct. 25, the WHS Media and Technology Advisory Committee voted to uphold the use of the book. Lesesne has said she plans to appeal that decision.

The book will not be taught in Mary Kent Whitaker's class this semester, interim Superintendent David Fonseca said Monday, urging patience to those who seek a final verdict.

"A book challenge is a lengthy process, but we are going to do it right," Fonseca said.

The Board of Education met in closed session for two hours Monday to discuss several topics, including the membership of a review committee that will hear an appeal of the first committee's decision.

The review committee must include the superintendent or another central office employee, a community representative, a teacher of the subject or grade level challenged, a principal and a media coordinator, according to policy.

The school board reached consensus on the five members they wanted but did not release their names after the meeting as they indicated they would. The school system pledged to release the members' names Tuesday after they had been contacted.

As of Thursday afternoon, the school system had not made public those appointees.

Fonseca said one committee appointee had declined to serve, stalling the confirmation process. He declined to name the four members who had agreed to serve, saying he wanted to hold off until the full committee was in place.

In the past when making other committee appointments, the board has received in its meeting documents the suggested names of committee members for routine approval, but it did not make public any possible picks this time.

Fonseca said this rarely used committee represented "different circumstances" because potential members had not been contacted beforehand.

Chad Donahoo, an Asheville attorney from the firm Campbell Shatley serving the school system, said Monday that the state's open meetings law permitted the board to meet in closed session about the appointments because the topic dealt with personnel.

"It was the thought of the board that they would be talking about personnel, who would be constituting the committee, whether or not the person was qualified and whether there would be conflicts with the personnel," he said.

N.C. Press Association attorney Mike Tadych said certain parts of that discussion would not be appropriate for closed session, namely, the appointment of a community member, assuming that person is not also a schools employee.

The board also could be heard from the lobby discussing matters about the book challenge aside from picking committee members. Board members and staff talked about the need for thorough syllabi and read aloud an email received about the book.

Tadych said that if any of those conversations occurred outside the context of choosing committee members, it could be a violation of the N.C. Open Meetings Law.

"If they close a meeting for a stated purpose, their discussion cannot go beyond the purpose," Tadych said.

Fonseca said that snippets of the discussion would not show the full picture, including whether the chairman or attorney might have halted any conversations that went off topic. He would not say whether the chairman or attorney did so, however.

"For me to say that that happened or did not happen would be to discuss what had happened in closed session," Fonseca said.

Donahoo said that the board did not discuss the merits of the complaint during closed session.

"There was a question asked about just the nature of the complaint, it was quickly explained, and then the conversation went back to choosing the committee," he said. " ... There were no general discussions about the merits of the complaint because the board has to remain neutral. If there is an appeal of this secondary committee, the board ultimately has to be an adjudicator of the appeal."

Under the same rationale, board attorney Paul Miller denied Lesesne from speaking about the merits of her complaint at an Oct. 14 board meeting.

But on Monday night, she and two other parents shared their concerns about the book with the board.

Lisa Sloboda, a mother of four, said she had read the book cover to cover and wanted it removed from any classroom.

"This book is not appropriate. This book is obscene," she said. " ... I ask the board to consider what is contained within these pages and how it would affect the minds of a young child."

Parent Ken Sevensky also spoke in support of Lesesne's challenge, saying he had to put the book down after starting it because he didn't want to read the "obscene" material anymore.

Sevensky asked if he could read aloud some of the controversial parts, which board Chairman Lee Warren denied.

"Thank you. Because I don't want to do it," Sevensky said. "If it can't be read in a public forum, then why are we asking our students to read this literature?"

Lesesne said she hoped her appeal would improve the challenge process, including encouraging better communication between teachers and parents about controversial texts to ensure "this doesn't happen again."

Despite the flood of opinions that already has reached the board, Vice Chairwoman Delora Hodges said the Board of Education is prepared to hear appeals of the challenge if it rises to that level.

"I have confidence that all of the board members would be able to approach it with objectivity and would be able to listen to all the evidence," Hodges said. "That's what we do."