Omar Currie, a third-grade teacher in Efland, NC, has come under fire for reading the picture book King & King (Tricycle Press, 2003) to his class. Written by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland originally in Dutch, King & King tells the story of a prince marrying another prince. Currie, just finishing his second year as a teacher at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School read the story to his students in late April 2015, after a bullying incident in which a child was called names during gym class that didn’t make “him feel good,” says Currie.
With the class studying fractured fairytales—well-known tales in which the plot, characters, or other element is changed—Currie felt that King & King would fit both with his curriculum and the recent bullying incident.
“At the beginning of the year, the school had adopted a number of books on diverse families,” he says. “We’d had a conversation about the books in the fall. The media center said the assistant principal had the book, so I grabbed it from her and read it to the kids.”
That evening, Currie says, he received a call at home from his principal, Kiley Brown, who told him a parent had called her and was upset about Currie reading the book. Brown asked Currie about the context of the reading and also directed the teacher to review the “Controversial Issues Policy” of Orange County Schools, which includes Efland-Cheeks.
Orange County Schools’ Controversial Issues Policy 3331 states, in part, that a teacher should talk with the school’s principal prior to “launching a class in the study of an obviously controversial topic….” While the policy does not outline specifically what constitutes such a topic, it does state that the principal should review “(1) its appropriateness to the course, (2) its appropriateness for the maturity of the students, (3) the approach to instruction, and (4) the teaching materials to be used.”
Currie, who is openly gay, says that his partner felt nervous about the situation, but his school had just invested in LGBT books, so “I had no doubt that Orange County would stand by my decision,” he says.
He met with Brown the next morning, per her request. She informed Currie that parents should have had the opportunity to opt out of having the book read to their children, as “there was no difference between what I did and a puberty conversation,” he says. Currie understood her comments to imply that reading King & King was akin to launching a conversation with students about puberty—something that should have been approved, he gathered, by Brown before discussing. He pushed back.
“I wanted to talk to someone about the controversial issues policy,” he says. “We can’t consider people in our community as controversial.”
Yet controversy has followed King & King, one of the 10 most challenged books in both 2003 and 2004, according to the American Library Association (ALA). The book also prompted a 2006 protest by the parents of a second grader at Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA. They objected to their son’s teacher not notifying them before reading the book to students. The parents filed a federal lawsuit against both the teacher and school, but the case was dismissed in favor of the school.
PArents object to book
Other parents raised their own concerns at Efland-Cheeks, with three objections filed about the book’s use in the third-grade class, according to Seth Stephens, who oversees accreditation, school community relations, after school programs, and public relations for Orange County Schools. Stephens also stated that Brown “never brought this [Controversial Issues Policy] up in terms of how this book is being handled.”
The objections filed by parents actually cited Board Policy 3210, “Parental Inspection and Objection to Instructional Materials,” according to a statement from Orange County Schools, released June 1. This policy allows parents to ask for a “reconsideration of educational materials.” Following the objections, the school’s media review committee met twice over the book, with open meetings also held for parents, community members, and others to attend. The committee also read and evaluated King & King, and issued a report “allowing use of the book,” according to the statement.
Both decisions have since been appealed and are “now being addressed by the school system at the district level,” according to the release. A third meeting will be scheduled, with a date still to be set, with Orange County Schools Superintendent Del Burns to “issue a report of the committee’s decision” when one is reached,” the release states. If that decision is appealed, the Board of Education would hear that appeal.
To Currie, however, a new policy set by Brown is also of concern to him as a teacher. While King & King will be allowed in the school, it is not currently in the media center. In addition, any book that a teacher wishes to read to students or use in the classroom that is not in the school’s media center will need to be submitted to parents in advance, along with a title and synopsis, starting in the 2015-2016 school year. Stephens said it was “his understanding” that this new policy had been set by Efland-Cheeks, as “they can set policy at their own school,” he says. Repeated requests by School Library Journal to speak with Brown were not returned.
However, Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says such a policy could create “a lot of extra work, almost unreasonably so, to have him vet every one of those books by parents,” given that Currie reads upwards of 50 books to his class a year.
“There is a difference between a high school reading class that has 10 books in the curriculum and running those past parents versus what an elementary school teacher may read when we’re talking about picture books,” says Pekoll. “I have not yet seen this kind of policy where a school requires every book read aloud to an elementary school class be sent to parents ahead of time.”
Currie himself is also in the hot seat. He says that a personal grievance has been filed against him with the district, which Stephens would neither confirm nor deny, citing that “it might be a confidential matter.” But Currie says that Brown requested he speak with her in the middle of his teaching day more than a week after reading the book, asking questions regarding the specific bullying incident and wanting dates and times. Currie says he left Brown’s office and told her he would need representation for future conversations on that matter.
While Currie says many parents from his class have voiced support for him, with at least one community member drafting an op-ed in the News & Observer, others have taken a different stance. One grandparent of children at Elfand-Cheeks wondered how King & King “infiltrated a classroom,” and stated that “…when faculty knowingly violate parental and religious rights, they should be subject to reprimand,” she wrote in a May 27 News & Observer column.
With school ending June 12, Currie is undecided about what he may do for the coming school year. Other principals in the area have called him, he says. While Currie won’t name the schools, he says some principals have offered to have him come in and talk with them about potential jobs. But for the most part, he’s trying to keep his mind on instruction, even as he worries about his professionalism being questioned.
“Can I have a fair evaluation and be in an environment where I can do my job?” he says. “I don’t know who I can trust and not trust.”