Advocates, school board members question validity of parent’s 93 book challenges

The Berkeley County School District plans to review all of the challenged books
The decision of whether 93 challenged books in Berkeley Co. schools will remain on the shelf is coming soon after one parent formally complained to the district
Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 4:41 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 3, 2023 at 3:33 PM EDT

MONCKS CORNER, S.C. (WCSC) - The decision of whether 93 challenged books in Berkeley County schools will remain on the shelf is coming soon after one parent formally complained to the district about them.

Those books have not been removed, but a reconsideration process is now underway.

“I feel that it’s unreasonable to have one parent be the voice of 38,000 students,” Berkeley County School Board member Dr. Crystal Wigfall said.

Ten committees made up of librarians, staff and parents have been formed to review the books, with the first meeting to take place Tuesday.

The district plans to livestream the process for transparency and to comply with open record laws.

The forms challenging the titles, submitted by parent Angelina Davenport, are nearly identical except for the title and author. For the section asking for the student’s name, Davenport filled it out stating “[e]very Berkeley County student that has access to this content in our middle and high schools.”

“It would be silly if it weren’t so dangerous,” ACLU South Carolina spokesman Paul Bowers said.

Bowers’ organization obtained documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to better understand how to fight back against proposed book bans.

Davenport declined to comment about her motivation to file the forms but did speak at a board meeting before they were submitted on May 1 of this year.

She spoke about the book “Sold” by Patricia McCormick that her child was required to read in English class and her concern about a graphic rape scene.

“If there are books of the same caliber, that equally describe the innocence that was stolen from this girl, why choose to expose them to this obscene and sexually explicit material? Why is it acceptable to make choices for my child, choices I’m not included in, choices I do not agree with?” she said addressing the board.

She cited the state’s obscenity law, SC 16-15-30, which makes it illegal to disseminate obscenity to a minor. That’s also the reason she cites for each additional challenged title to be removed from schools.

“This is unconstitutional and ungodly,” Davenport said.

Bowers says the state obscenity law doesn’t apply to schools “carrying out [their] legitimate function.”

“Parents have a right to know what their kids are reading and if they find it objectionable, you can always opt your student out... what’s different and what’s happening now is that parents are trying to opt everyone’s children out of reading these books,” Bowers said.

In Beaufort County Schools, two complainants submitted nearly 100 challenges.

“It’s an intimidation tactic and pretty transparent what they’re doing again and again in one district after another,” Bowers added.

He says bans against the same books have been sought after as groups like Moms for Liberty have sourced from national list labeling the books as inappropriate for children.

“These are not a corrupting influence. They are a window to the world, a source of empathy and sometimes they are a way for a student to see themselves in literature in ways they hadn’t before,” Bowers says.

Specifically pointing to the book “Sold,” Bowers said students have been more comfortable to come forward about their own sexual abuse.

Three school board members have expressed their concerns about the process so far.

“In my opinion, the superintendent has violated policy by allowing these committees to be formed now,” At-Large Board Member David Barrow said.

“Every student, that includes my child, I didn’t ask you for that,” District 8 Member Yvonne Bradley said.

“I do feel that there is a political agenda behind it. I don’t feel that it’s for our children and what’s best for our children,” Wigfall said.

They believe that the parent had superseded their policy by complaining directly to Superintendent Dr. Anthony Dixon instead of discussing her concerns with her student’s teacher, librarian and principal.

Each form also asks that the challenger sign off that they have read the material. Davenport checked yes on every single one.

“Nobody’s read all 93 of these books. So, I don’t think this attestation is accurate,” Barrow said.

Despite these concerns, the lengthy reconsideration process has gone forward as approved by the district’s legal counsel.

On Monday night, district counsel Brandon Gaskins stated that the district “attempted and succeeded” at complying with the “spirit” of the policy and the concerned parent had done the same.

“In this case, she represented that she did read the entirety of the materials and as a result there is no way that would be permissible under our policy to challenge the veracity of her representation,” Gaskins said. “We simply cannot keep her from exercising her rights under the policy, just because some people have doubts about whether she read the books.”

Gaskins also confirmed that the parent sent in additional, specific objections to the challenged titles not included in the forms.

Board Chair Mac McQuillin released the following statement:

Special interest groups and certain board members have tried to politicize this process. The district has had a policy in place for parents to challenge instructional materials for more than 10 years. I am confident that the process and results will be fair and transparent.

Ultimately, policy dictates the superintendent is the one who will make the final call as to whether these books will stay on the shelves, choosing to either accept or reject the committee’s recommendations.

School board members will only be able to weigh in if there is an appeal.

Barrow says he believes the final decision should be up to the board. He maintains his votes on books, if there are ones in the future, will be unbiased.