BOONE, N.C. — Mary Kent Whitaker can start teaching “The House of the Spirits” again to her sophomore honors English class.
After being embroiled in a five-month controversy over a complaint about her use of the book in her class, Whitaker was given the green-light to use the book in class by the Watauga County Board of Education on Thursday night.
The board split the vote, with three members voting to keep the book and two voting against it.
The two members who voted against using the book, Lee Warren and Delora Hodges, first moved to remove the book from the curriculum and keep the book in the school library. That motion failed.
Board members Ron Henries, Brenda Reese and Barbara Kinsey voted in favor of fully retaining the book.
“Parents need and deserve an opt-out if they don’t want their children to read this particular book,” said Reese, who said she has read the book twice since the challenge first came up in October. “But I don’t feel like we should pull this book from the class.”
Henries said that he personally doesn’t agree with the book or understand why parents want their children reading it, but sided with the majority of parents who have chosen to allow their students to read it, even amid the controversy.
“Even in the height of this controversy, a great multitude of parents have decided to let their children read this book,” Henries said. “I don’t know why. But a staggering number of people want their kids to read this book. I’m going to have to stick with parent choice.”
The controversy surrounding the book has swelled since first bubbling up in October.
Several hundred people attended a school board meeting two weeks ago during which the book’s merits were discussed. Appalachian State University has held teach-ins to support the book. The N.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got involved this week, holding a rally in support of the book before Thursday’s hearing. The organization pledged its support in the event the book was not upheld.
Whitaker said that in the four semesters “The House of the Spirits” has been part of her curriculum, more than 90 percent of parents have signed off on letting their children read it. Several have chosen to read the alternate text, she said.
Chastity Lesesne was one parent who was not comfortable with her son reading “The House of the Spirits.” Lesesne said the options given students who don’t to read the book weren’t good enough and that they were removed from full class instruction during that unit. Lesesne challenged the book and requested it be removed from the curriculum.
Lesesne cited the book’s mature content, including scenes of rape and torture as reasons for the challenge.
“It’s unfortunate it got to this point,” Lesesne said after the board’s decision.
The meeting was moved to the Watauga County Courthouse on Wednesday. Open meeting laws require at least 48-hour notice for a location change. To comply with the law, the majority of the board members convened the meeting at the original location – the Board of Education/Margaret Gragg Education Center – at the 7 p.m. start time.
The board members recessed the meeting at the education center then reconvened at the courthouse at 7:20.
Marshall Ashcraft, public information director for the Watauga County Schools, said the meeting was moved because of seating and parking concerns. The courthouse’s capacity of 205 is about twice that of the education center.
Whitaker also cited security concerns as part of the reason for the move. Eleven Watauga County teachers, including Whitaker, received threatening letters. The Boone Police is investigating the letters, which were sent from an unknown source.
Everyone who attended the hearing had to go through metal detectors and bags were searched by police. More than 150 people attended, though comments from the public were not accepted. The school board heard public comments at its last meeting, two weeks ago. At that time, the board took comments from 10 people in support of the book and 10 people opposed to it.
Whitaker and Lesesne were the only people allowed to address the board Thursday. Each was given 30 minutes to make her case. Lesesne spoke first, arguing that the book contained too much sexually explicit material and was inappropriate for 15- and 16-year-old students.
“Would you rather keep this explicit book than allow all students to excel in English literature?” Lesesne asked the board.
The question was not that simple, Whitaker said. She argued that banning the book, which is recommended by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as part of the Common Core curriculum, would not only prevent students from receiving beneficial and meaningful instruction, but also set a dangerous precedent for future curriculum challenges.
“Removing ‘The House of the Spirits’ will open up the flood gate of complaints,” Whitaker said.
It was nearly impossible, she said, to find books that were academically challenging and didn’t contain material a parent could object to. That’s why alternatives are built into the curriculum, she said.
Students who do not wish to read “The House of the Spirits,” could choose an alternate text to read during that unit, opt to take a lower-level English class or take honors English online.
Lesesne said she hopes she can continue to work with the school to find more suitable solutions, like literary circles, that will allow all students to more fully participate in the class.
The book challenge in Watauga was the third in North Carolina this school year. Brunswick and Randolph counties saw similar challenges and eventually voted to retain the books “The Color Purple,” and “Invisible Man,” respectively.