The discussion about racism and foul language used in reading material provided to Pocahontas County High School students continued at the Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting March 9, with community members, parents and state residents weighing in on the issue of whether the books “The Hate U Give” and “This Book is Anti-Racist” should be allowed back in the classroom.
The issue arose a few weeks ago when parents shared their concern and anger about the two books being used in the ninth grade honors English class taught by Samara Mann.
The books were collected from students and Mann gave them a new assignment.
After the initial discussion at the February 16 board meeting, the issue was heard statewide and more individuals entered the fold and shared their opinions about banned books and teaching students about racism.
During the hear callers portion of the board meeting, several individuals – on Zoom and in person – addressed the board and voiced their opinions.
Hillsboro resident Blair Campbell – a mother of two – expressed her support of all the county’s educators and said she wants to help the county provide diversity education for the teachers and students.
“I’m just really passionate about trying to build community support and community involvement,” she said. “Just to help teachers teach critical thinking and help them get the support they need. I’d like to maybe see some committees or review groups that could talk about these issues, take community experiences into consideration. Let people’s voices and their truths be heard.
“I just wanted to have a positive way to set the tone,” she continued. “There are just a bunch of people out here who want to figure out what works best for the kids because this is a unique area, so we need unique solutions to our problems.”
Echoing Campbell’s sentiment, Jenny Anderson, director of the Families Leading Change organization in Charleston, stated that she and her colleagues urge the board to allow teachers to use controversial materials, including the two books in question, in the curriculum.
“We urge this board to underscore the importance of academic freedom and to encourage a diversity of the points by supporting the teacher’s choice to include this material in her class curriculum,” she said. “The board’s support is crucial. By supporting the selection of these books – as well as other selections that might spark thoughtful conversations around systemic racism – the board will help lift up Pocahontas County as both a leader and advocate of anti-racism and encourage other local school boards to support their educators’ decisions on what they see is appropriate to providing an equal and diverse educational experience.”
President of the West Virginia NAACP Owens Brown also spoke about using the two books to educate students and commended the class and Mann for selecting them.
“It is my understanding that the students selected this book,” he said. “I must commend them for having the foresight and the courage to explore the issues of racism in America. I know that the discussion of race makes older people – white and black – uncomfortable. It’s a discussion that is long overdue. There is no denying the fact that we, as a nation, have come a long way in acceptance of each other no matter what color we are, but the journey is not complete.”
Brown referenced the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of the past several years and said white young adults marched and participated in both to show support for their fellowman – black Americans.
“For them, justice is color blind just as it should be,” he said. “They were telling their parents, friends and the nation this is not the type of world they want to live in and they are going to change it and make it better. We as adults and parents must understand our children’s reality stems from our realty. They have a different consciousness of the world they see than the one you have seen.
“They selected the book ‘The Hate U Give’ because they felt it was something they needed for their journey through life,” he continued. “Only through knowledge and understanding of the realities of people different from themselves will they be able to navigate the seas of life.”
West Virginia University students Manar Hesino, a recent high school graduate, said she commends the students for selecting the books and advocated for their use in the curriculum.
“I strongly believe that not allowing teenagers to read certain books, such as anti-racists books like this, could potentially promote ignorance in our own school systems,” she said. “If you look up this book, you can see that it is rated for thirteen year olds and older. It’s a young adult book and the majority of the readers are high school students. This isn’t an R rated book. It doesn’t promote bad or explicit behaviors. It’s just very honest about what is happening in our current society.”
Hesino added that many of the themes from the book are seen in current media and said having the book act as a stepping point for a discussion about the current social climate could help the students better understand the world around them.
Several parents who initiated the conversation at the February meeting returned to reiterate their opinions and to add to the discussion.
Andy Friel began by apologizing to the board for providing incorrect information at the February meeting. Friel said that he was misinformed when he stated that two universities banned the books from their campuses.
Friel continued by saying he felt he was lied to at the last meeting and did not appreciate it and said that several county policies were broken when the books were introduced in the classroom.
Friel yielded the floor to John Burks, whose main concern was in regard to the foul language used in “The Hate U Give.” Burks said he recently attended the high school rodeo competition in Texas and, in that week, he only heard curse words four times.
Parent Susan Lane said she counted the curse words used in “The Hate U Give” and was upset with the amount of foul language in the book.
“That book, ‘The Hate U Give,’ there are three hundred-fifty pages in the book,” she said. “The F-word – and yes, I’m censoring myself since someone in The Pocahontas Times wrote that I didn’t censor myself last time. Why should I? My fourteen year old daughter is being asked to read the F-word over ninety times. GD is in there more than twice. Lots of other expletives.
“They talk about sex, drugs, going all the way, gangs, gang affiliation, gang shootings,” she continued. “There’s a better way to teach loving and acceptance to our children. There is a way to teach character without cutting them down. These books – they teach discrimination against whites, against Christians, against males and females. If you are a male and you say you’re a male, in that book ‘This Book is Anti-Racist,’ you are wrong.
“That infuriates me that there are people who will fight to have this garbage taught to our children,” she added.
Lane said, instead, students should be taught proper manners and read excerpts from “Hold the Door: Lessons for My Kids.”
Board president Sue Hollandsworth asked the parents what their biggest concerns were and they agreed that they had a problem with their children being exposed to foul language and sexual content. They said they did not have a problem with diversity studies, but felt the English class was not the place for that.
PCHS principal Joe Riley gave a statement concerning how the issue was handled by the school, stating that he had approved the curriculum when Mann presented it to him this summer. He did not, however, read the books prior to them being assigned to students.
Riley said that after the issue became public, he received a lot of correspondence from former students who all agreed that it was important for students to be exposed to diversity studies and understand the current climate of society before they graduate and enter the world.
Riley stood behind the decision to allow the books to be studied and said that, while he understands why parents and community members may not agree, he feels the books are important for the students to read.
“Regarding the language and actions of the characters of ‘The Hate U Give,’” he said, “this is an acceptable curriculum for high school students. Our students read many books in literature classes where characters make morally questionable choices regarding things like lifestyles, drugs and alcohol, teenage sex, depression, suicide, destructive behavior, murder, lying and strong language.
“This can also be seen in today’s movies, social media and songs,” he continued. “I think at PCHS, we know that just because students hear a song, play video games or, more importantly, read a book, they do not have those behaviors or beliefs. Our students can engage with strong content and they can discern between right and wrong.
“I appreciate and respect community members,” he added. “But, as a result of my review in respect to Pocahontas County High School, I support the use of the curriculum by Mrs. Mann and the books ‘This Book is Anti-Racist’ and ‘The Hate U Give.’ I recommend the curriculum and reading the books be resumed by Mrs. Mann at the earliest convenience.”
Superintendent Terrence Beam read a statement he wrote concerning the issue – which he shared with The Pocahontas Times last week to be published. In his statement, Beam said he is addressing the need for multi-cultural studies.
Riley agreed that he feels the high school needs to provide courses specific to multi-cultural studies for the students.
After digesting all that was said at both meetings, board members had the opportunity to share their opinions about the issue before it was put to rest.
Board member Sam Gibson said he was disappointed with several aspects of the issue.
“I’m disappointed in the loud voices,” he said. “There’s a chain of command. I’m told there’s a lot of this that could have been avoided by the parents speaking with Mrs. Mann and Mr. Riley and talking it over.
“Another thing I’m disappointed in is the rest of the lesson plan and the rest of the lesson to be learned here,” he added. “So far the only lesson that’s been taught is if you complain and jump up and down hard enough, you can get something stopped or you can bully somebody into altering course. I want to know what the rest of the plan is, and I’d like to move forward.”
Hollandsworth shared in Gibson’s disappointment and said much of the controversy could have been avoided if it was handled properly at the high school.
“I would like to say that I was disappointed that all of this got blown so far out of proportion,” she said. “It was basically an issue over language in two books, or one book specifically. The language and the idea that all whites are bad, all whites are racist. I think that’s what I’ve been hearing.
“Then it’s become this issue of Pocahontas County Schools don’t support teaching about racism,” she continued. “They don’t support all of this. None of that is true. So where did all that come from?”
Hollandsworth directed her remarks to Riley, who she said should have handled the concern before it came to the board.
“Joe, I have to give you a lot of responsibility for this happening at all,” she said. “You have three English teachers, two of which said, ‘no’ [to using the books]. One said, ‘I want to go with it.’ Okay. But you needed to investigate a little more. You needed to read the books. They needed to realize that these books might be a bit controversial.
“You know your community,” she continued. “And if you realized that from the beginning and had done what you’re now planning to do, I think this would have never been an issue because Mrs. Mann could have continued her discussions on racism which is a necessary issue, no question about it.”
Hollandsworth said that while teaching students about racism is important, assigning the books during the COVID-19 pandemic when students have been shuffled between remote learning and in-school instruction was not ideal. She added it was not appropriate for the ninth grade students to read.
She asked Riley if he agrees to follow the steps laid out by Beam in regard to creating a multi-cultural education curriculum for the 2021-2022 school year. Riley said he would.
To try to prevent issues such as this from arising in the future, Beam said teachers will be asked to provide a reading list to all parents prior to the school year. If parents or students have an issue with any assigned reading material, the students in question will be given a different assignment, which fits the lesson.