(Updated 9.15.22, 7:50 p.m. for typos.)
An East Coweta High School sophomore is pushing back against a year-long campaign to remove certain books from school libraries.
“I’ll be frank, I don't believe that censorship is the correct option,” Natalie Zern told the Coweta County Board of Education Tuesday. “Historically, when books get banned, it doesn't end up well for the people or for the leadership.”
A nationwide crusade to eliminate a particular batch of “objectionable” books in public schools made its way into the Coweta boardroom last fall, resulting in near-monthly tirades – and a few lewd read-alouds – from local activists who say they want to protect students from exposure to inappropriate materials.
It’s been a long, contentious back-and-forth, further complicated by a Georgia General Assembly-mandated policy clarification that effectively excludes those activists from the decision-making process for evaluating objectionable materials unless they are doing so at a school their children attend.
An important voice missing from those tense exchanges, Zern said, has been that of the Coweta County School System students themselves.
“We’ve had teachers, parents, guardians and concerned citizens with nothing to do with the school system share their opinions,” Zern said. “However, we've got to hear from someone whom this censorship will actually affect – someone you as teachers, parents, citizens and school board members are supposed to be representing.”
Zern’s parents, both educators, helped her understand that literacy is not only the ability to read and write, she said, but also knowledge or competence in a specific area.
“While some speakers may have been able to read, they do not have literacy skills in areas such as childhood education, juvenile and adolescent development or political ideology,” Zern told board members.
She recited part of the Coweta County School System’s “Mission, Vision and Beliefs” statement (www.cowetaschools.com): “… We believe, as leaders of learners, we must empower students to be active and accountable participants in their learning.”
Zern told board members that, as leaders of 23,000 students, “you must give us the tools to empower and educate ourselves on matters we deem important to us.”
“We are not active if we do not get to choose the materials we wish to read in an already very rigid curriculum,” she said. “We are not accountable if we aren't taught the freedom of media and the freedom to choose. We are not participating if our curriculum is being left in the hands of representatives who are going to take away our books. We are not learning if all media we ingest is tailored to fit the specific wants and wishes of people in the county. And we are not empowered if you refuse to dignify us with the right to learn about different cultures, ideas and things we're interested in.”
She said she recently studied censorship in an advanced placement history class taught by Jennifer Sandlin at ECHS, where she learned that banned books throughout history have included any version of the New Testament that was not written in Latin, the works of Galileo, Voltaire, Copernicus and Victor Hugo, and George Orwell’s anti-authoritarian “1984.”
“When leaders censor books, they aren't looking out for the good of the people – they're looking to forward an agenda that they believe in,” Zern said.
They often do so with weak evidence and claims, she said, citing the reading of an isolated passage from Sarah J. Maas’ “Court of Mist and Fury” last December. The speaker chose a sexually explicit excerpt to make the point that the book should not be available to students, Zern said, but missed its wider purpose.
“Had the speaker exercised their literacy skills, they would have found out that the book is a social commentary with focus on mental health, the main character’s severe depression and the abusive relationship the main character undergoes,” she said, noting that several areas of the Bible also include sexually explicit – or “inappropriate” – content.
“I’m not trying to bring religion into issues for the sake of controversy,” she said. “I’m simply trying to illustrate that the inclusion of these passages does not undermine the influence or message of the Bible.”
Zern also emphasized the importance of reading for fun as well as for school, citing a Scholastic study conducted in 2013 that indicated the practice can increase students’ Lexile scores and comprehension skills.
“Both forms of reading … are necessary to fully develop literacy skills and are needed to completely develop a child’s reading process, so children should have equal opportunities to read the books they want,” she said.
The practice of removing so-called “objectionable” materials from classrooms robs students of important educational opportunities, Zern said.
“A child who is not permitted to read a book in class – a book that's being taught by an educator that has been reading and studying it for years – is missing out on the lessons, analysis and literacy development that goes along with it,” she said. “… It may seem like a few angry adults now, and one or two censored texts, but before long, it's sure to become a systemic problem.”
Convincing students to hate certain books will teach them to hate reading, Zern said.
“You're teaching them that the happiness and the lessons found in literature don't exist,” she told board members. “You're telling them that you value your own personal comfort over their development into a functioning, intelligent and well-read adult. You're telling them that you want them to be treated like a 5-year-old.”
‘Outdated’ middle school dress code
Zern was not the only student speaker at Tuesday’s meeting.
Seventh grader Colby Wilson also took to the lectern to make the board aware of her objections to the “outdated” dress code at Arnall Middle School.
Wilson said she has been pulled for dress code violations several times – once when she was wearing sweatpants and a sweater.
“I would never wear anything inappropriate anywhere,” she said.
Shorts have been a particular issue, Wilson said. She was pulled for a violation recently while walking to class, surrounded by her friends and peers.
“Not only was this embarrassing, but the situation was handled horribly,” Wilson said. “The administrator should have pulled me aside to speak about whatever they thought was the problem.”
Wilson said she is tall and has trouble finding clothes to fit the dress code.
“The teachers and staff say that girls’ thighs and legs are ‘inappropriate and distracting,’” she said. “But if anyone is distracted, then that person should be punished, not the girls. It is not that you can see my thighs. When girls wear jeans with holes in the thigh area, putting tape over the hole (a fix accepted by many schools) only makes people stare at the area.”
Wilson said she thinks it’s unfair that boys also are allowed to wear shorts but never seem to get violations.
“Administrators should be focused on girls’ education, not our clothing,” she said. “We are 14 and younger. We should not have to worry about this. When girls get punished for others’ actions, it makes us feel like it's our fault, and it is not. I hope you take all this into consideration and update Arnall’s dress code.”
Board member outburst gaveled down
While all seven elected board members were present at the meeting, only six appeared to have been supportive of the students who came before them.
During Zern’s comments, Board Chair Beth Barnett gaveled down an interruption from board member Buzz Glover, reminding the board that it was the public’s time to speak. Glover explained his outburst later, during board comments.
“I’ve been on this board a year and nine months, and I heard the most disgusting thing that I have heard said in this room tonight. And no, it was not from the speaker – it was from my colleague to the right,” Glover said, referring to District 4 representative Linda Menk. “I heard my colleague say, ‘What a dimwit.’ I don't know if she intended for me to hear it or not, but I did.”
Glover said he’s known Zern for several years and is proud of her. He apologized for Menk’s alleged comment, which was not picked up on audio.
“I hope you didn’t hear that,” Glover said to Zern.
He went on to issue an open invitation for other Coweta students to speak at future meetings.
“I invite all 23,000 of you that are out there to come speak on whatever subject you like, and I never – and I hope nobody on this board would – think anything less of any student whether I agree with them or not. Or any other speaker,” he said. “I’m looking forward to January 2023.”
Menk, an embattled two-termer, was unseated by challenger Rob DuBose in June after he earned nearly 80 percent of the runoff election vote.
DuBose takes office in January 2023.