Columbia County Schools take unusual step to remove best-selling novel

Columbia County School's superintendent recently removed a best-selling book from its supplemental reading list. A member of the system's Greenbrier High School Book Club is shown here in the school's media center. Photo by Greenbrier High School.

A Georgia-born author of a 2017 New York Times bestseller says Columbia County Schools are doing students a disservice by removing her book and two others from a supplemental reading list.

“Dear Martin” by Nic Stone is one of three novels removed from a list of 17 books proposed by teachers and a selection committee Columbia School Superintendent Sandra Carraway removed due to concerns over coarse language and sensitive content.

Carraway said a violent scene involving a black teenager and police officers was a factor that prompted her to take “Dear Martin” off the supplemental reading list.  The scene involving police conflict was “a very sensitive situation across the nation,” she said. The schools in her district recently hired campus safety officers, she said.

Students in 10th grade classes would have had the option of reading the novels for supplemental studies.

“You can imagine if it’s that sensitive in the adult realm, in a class of 14 or 15 year-olds it can be more sensitive also,” Carraway said. “I do not believe we need to bring that kind of unrest and potential for divisiveness into a classroom of young teenagers.”

Best-selling author Nic Stone says the Columbia County School Superintendent is doing the district’s students a disservice by pulling her “Dear Martin” from a reading list. Contributed

“Dear Martin” is the fictional story of a black high school senior who writes letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to navigate his violent interactions with police and racial tensions at the predominantly white school he attends.

 In addition to “Dear Martin,” “Regeneration” by Pat Barker and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon are also removed from supplemental reading lists in the Augusta area’s Columbia schools.

Some argue that students should have opportunities to confront tough social issues presented in the books, allowing teachers to guide students through those subjects rather than skirting them entirely.

It is rare in Georgia for schools to set books off limits from the classroom or library shelves, said Kosha Tucker, an attorney with the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Removing the books as a reading option seems problematic from a free-speech perspective, Tucker said.

“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has recognized, and we agree, that students should have access to a broad range of reading materials,” Tucker said.

Parents and educators occasionally push to remove a book from a public library in Georgia, said State Librarian Julie Walker. A local library board’s trustees usually decides whether to keep the book and state officials aren’t usually involved, although the state’s public library system favors collections that represent many different views, she said.

“Occasionally, there is an item that is deemed not appropriate for a collection and it is removed,” Walker said. “But generally, that is the exception, not the norm.”

School districts should have book selection policies crafted by a variety of teachers, parents and administrators all involved in the final decision, not just a superintendent, said Holly Frilot, president of the Georgia Library Media Association. Those policies should also distinguish between books picked for course teaching and for placement in libraries, she said.

“To not require it in the classroom is one thing,” Frilot said by phone last week. “To not have it on a library shelf, to me that is an area of concern because you have a very small group of people making decisions.”

Carraway said she stands by her decision to remove the three books and heard support from many people in the Augusta area. She said she understands critics of the decision, but her objections to content and language in the books outweighed the literary value she thinks they might offer students. Carraway likened her task of curating books for young people to a rating system used for movies.

Sandra Carraway, superintendent of Columbia County Schools, said a violent scene involving a black teenager and police officers was a factor that prompted her to take “Dear Martin” off the supplemental reading list. Contributed

“If a movie is rated R, a student that’s not 17 or older can’t go see those movies unless a parent’s with them,” Carraway said. “So when we looked at novels, that’s kind of the approach we used.”

Stone said she appreciates Carraway’s concerns about the language in her book, but says the decision to remove it from the supplemental list doesn’t serve the best interests of students. The novel was inspired by actual officer-involved killings of black teenagers, real-life situations that she argued students should confront in the classroom.

“These are REAL issues,” Stone said by email. “And as young people are affected, removing their opportunity to discuss what’s happening in the world – through the lens of fiction – in spaces where they are meant to learn, is shortsighted.”

Beau Evans
Beau Evans has covered local and state government and breaking news in New Orleans and California. He’s reported on immigration issues, the threat of rising seas to coastal areas, public safety and hurricanes. At The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Evans detailed the critical role government plays to ensure that people in a community have access to clean water and other public needs. In 2018, his investigative reporting revealed top officials at New Orleans’ cash-poor water utility dealt themselves huge raises, prompting several to resign. Evans’ prior reporting was in West Marin north of San Francisco for The Point Reyes Light. Evans is an Atlanta native who graduated with honors from The Lovett School and is an honors graduate of North Carolina’s Davidson College. Beau was with the Georgia Recorder until January 4th, 2020.

1 COMMENT

  1. “Shortsighted” does not go far enough to describe the decisions being made here. I would suggest, instead, “curtailing growth in consciousness.”

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