The Guilford County Board of Education voted Tuesday to allow the book Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward to be used in a 12th grade advanced placement level English course at Northern Guilford High School. 

The book is optional for students, but since last year, two parents have been trying to remove it from the class entirely. 

During a special meeting on Nov. 29, complainant Kimberly Magnusson read a sexually explicit passage from the book aloud and called it pornography. 

“Northern teachers are offering, disseminating, and making available that which is obscene,” Magnusson said. “They consent and allow minors to peruse harmful material to their young minds.”

The book was recommended by nonprofit organization College Board for AP-level English courses. In 2011, it won a National Book Award for fiction.

The novel is a story of how a Black Mississippi family prepared for Hurricane Katrina. The family, including teenage daughter Esch, experiences poverty, violence and sexual abuse. 

Natalie Strange is the director of library media services for Guilford County Schools. At the meeting, she said that the book expands students’ critical thinking, and represents diverse viewpoints as required by the district’s policies for selected material. 

“Digging into what those viewpoints are that you see within this book, as you read about Esch, you read about poverty, teen pregnancy and disaster response,” Strange said. “Other ways that we delve into those social, economic and personal problems include poverty, sexual assault and mental health. All covered within this book and referenced in our selection criteria.”

Board Member T. Dianne Bellamy Small said that the 17 and 18-year-olds in the class have likely already been exposed to these topics, just by having a cell phone.

“We can't box our kids in from learning. They're gonna learn, whether we guide it, whether you as parents guide it, or whether their peers guide it, or whether they find it on TikTok, they're gonna get it,” she said. “So why not let us help be a part of the adult conversation just as parents want to be.”

She also spoke about her own experience with books as a student when schools were still segregated. 

“The books that I had to deal with were all books written about and by white people. That's what I had to learn from,” she said. “So I didn't learn about the struggles of Black people, except slavery, in the books that were in the libraries when I went to school. Now, a child can pick up a book about so many different things that may or may not be on TV, may or may not be discussed in their family homes.”

The board voted 6-2 to retain the book. Board members Pat Tillman and Linda Welborn voted against the use of the book in the class. 

This is the third time the issue has been brought to a vote in the district.  

The parent first filed a complaint against the book being used in class last school year. The issue went to the Media Technology Advisory Council at the school, which voted to keep the book available. 

The complainant appealed the decision, and then the Guilford County Schools District Review Committee voted to retain the book as well. The parent appealed again, bringing the issue to the school board.

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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