Interview of Stacia Harris, Director of Communications and Marketing for Buncombe County Schools and Dr. Samantha Sircey, Principal at North Buncombe High School, March 6, 2018. Interviewed by Cara Forbes.
SH: Dr. Sircey can spell her first and last name for you for the record if you’d like.
SS: Sure, its Samantha Sircy, S-A-M-A-N-T-H-A. S-I-R-C-E-Y.
CF: Okay. Awesome. And, as you know, the questions that I have for you today are about the challenge against The Bluest Eye at North Buncombe High School. My first question is . . . I’m wondering if you could identify the name of the teacher for me.
SS: No, I’d rather leave that out of it.
CF: Okay, that’s perfectly understandable and I totally respect that. Since the county is telling us that is was resolved at the school level (the case, I mean) I’m wondering what that process looks like and how it was handled at the school level. So, in other words, is the process with a book challenge different at the school level than what it is at the county level?
SH: I think in a way they’re similar. The process per school board policy starts at the school level with a parent or a child being able to challenge a required text in a class per that policy. Then they just bring that to me in writing and, from there, we have a school-based committee (called the MTAC committee) made up of representatives of each curricular department in our building and a parent representative not connected to the challenge. That’s a standing committee – that’s not pulled together just for this. That committee meets year-long for other issues at the school, such as how to purchase things, and things like that for the media center. And a MTAC, Cara – I’m going to have Dr. Sircey tell you what MTAC stands for.
SS: That is our Media and Technology Advisory Committee. So, if a challenge is at the school level then the MTAC is challenged with reviewing the text, reviewing how it was used in a classroom setting and making a suggestion as to how that should or should not be used in the future in that school building. That decision is then shared with the parent or the person who brought the challenge and then they have an amount of time – I believe it’s ten days. If they do not agree with the school’s decision then they can take it to the school board. And then the school board would have a larger Buncombe County Schools committee review it as well and then make a final decision.
CF: Okay. So when that final decision was made to, I believe, if my memory serves me correctly, that The Bluest Eye was removed from the curriculum in the Honors English III classroom, but then moved up to an AP Senior English class, is that correct?
SS: That was the suggestion of the MTAC committee, yes, that it is reserved for an AP Senior class.
CF: And did they specify why they made that suggestion in particular?
SS: Only about the mature content of the text.
CF: Okay, that makes sense. Since we’re planning to have a page on our website with some very brief biographies about the people that were interviewing I was wondering . . . could you tell me a little about yourselves, how long have you been in your current position, and how long have you been in Buncombe county, etc. If you’re comfortable with that, or if you prefer to type up your own biographical information – just in a really quick paragraph via email – I’m totally fine with that as well.
SH: Of course we’ll do that, Cara, but there’s something I wanted to stop you on. I know that Eric Grant was not able to talk with your research partner about the syllabus. Again this is kind of on a school level perspective, and I can let Dr. Sircey sort of fill you in. But all of our teachers, when they put together their syllabus for the year, they include a list of texts that will be taught and the general assignments that will be a part of the curriculum. On this they do include a note to parents that asks them and the kids to to go over the syllabus. And if they have any questions or concerns about any of the texts or assignments, they are strongly encouraged to bring those to the teacher. And, basically, what the teacher can do is provide an alternate text that still is in line with the curriculum but is a text that the parents can agree on. So – I’ll let Dr. Sircy fill you in more – but an important part of the school level strategy is to make sure our parents know what’s going on and they know what’s coming in that class before it comes. But I’ll let Dr. Sircey take over.
CF: Okay. And with that information in mind, another question that I have is: was a different textbook chosen to replace The Bluest Eye in the curriculum, and if so I’m curious to know what textbook was used to replace it, if any.
SS: So, Cara, this challenge occurred after this book had been used for classroom instruction through the whole unit. So there was no change and no one prior to starting the text came forward and said, “I’d like an alternate assignment, a different text to read.” So, at this point, no. However my English department has made a decision to replace that book with other texts and, honestly, I apologize, I can’t tell you off the top of my head which texts they included and that’s because different teachers, just like in college, tend to use different texts. So, I apologize, I don’t know an exact book-for-book replacement
CF: That’s alright. If there is anyway that information can be found (and if we were allowed to have access to that), I would love to be able to know what textbooks are being used instead. I know that in other cases that we looked at, or at least one case that my research partner and I came across, The Color Purple was used to replace The Bluest Eye.
SS: I know they were still looking at an approved list and suggestions from the state and our county curriculum folks. The goal was to find an American author, but I have not yet heard from them about what the definite book-for-book replacement would be. It’s because we’re still in this school year. We may not know until next August. Just FYI, if I’m going to be realistic for you as you’re figuring out your research.
CF: Okay. That makes perfect sense. I know that this case is probably one of the more recent ones that is being researched within this course, so again, perfectly understandable. Do you have anything else that you would like to share with me today?
SS: Actually Cara, I had a question for you. As a UNCA alum myself, I’m really interested in what class you’re in and what professor you have and what this overall assignment is. Is this your senior English research?
CF: Actually, this class is being offered online through the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges and it is with Dr. Cathy Hajo and Dr. Rebecca Dierking, who are at other universities within the COPLAC system. My partner, Rosanna, and I are the students who were selected to represent UNC-Asheville. Rosanna is actually, I believe, in the Chemistry and PreMedical program. And I am a Literature Major with an Ethnic Studies background, so I guess that it’s one of those examples of what a liberal arts college can offer. Some other schools that are working on this class are . . . I believe the College of William and Mary and one college out in Oklahoma. We all meet for video conferences to discuss the history of book censorship. And, outside of class, we do our own case studies at a local level on books that have been banned, either in a contemporary framework, such as what we have in this case, or from a more historic case, for example there’s one team who I think are doing a historic case of To Kill a Mockingbird. The class is called “A Burning Idea: Challenging and Censoring Books” and the final project that we’re working on is a website that, in my and Rosanna’s case we’re just looking to offer as many perspectives as we can about the case. We’re not leaning one way or the other; were not trying to argue anything having to do with censorship, we’re just looking to compile the information and turn it into a resource that people can look to as an example of a censorship case within Buncombe county. This class is a digital humanities course, so the website is a combination of everything that we’re collecting and we’re learning. So, does that answer your question? [CORRECTION: Cara meant to say that we were not leaning one way or the other in terms of approaching the interview subjects with questions about the book. But we do have to provide an analytical interpretation of the case and what it means in terms of censorship for the website. This is all based on the information we were able to gather about the case and what we learned about censorship throughout the course. Cara also made a slip and said that the book was banned instead of challenged, as Dr. Sircey addresses below.]
SS: It does, it does. I would hope. And that’s exciting. And I love to hear how education – whether it’s college level or high school level – is really taken on this new feeling of collaboration because now everything is so digital and you can collaborate with lots of students across the country. But having finished my doctorate, I would caution you to be careful, remember we didn’t ban this book.
CF: Yes, we do know the difference between a challenge and a book ban and we are making that distinction.
SH: And, for us, it’s really important. And part of the reason I have you speak to a couple of people is we want you to be able to understand our procedures we have in place starting at the school level, where we make sure parents are informed and aware, and kids are informed and aware, of the types of books that will be taught during the school year. We certainly don’t penalize a student for bringing their concerns to their teacher. And all of our teachers are prepared to offer an alternative text. And the rest of the class can stick to the curriculum as needed and per our board policy. Did Eric Grant send you the board policy?
CF: Yes, he did.
SH: So in the policy we have multiple layers in place to make sure our parents can bring their concerns to us and our schools have a committee where this is what they do. It’s sort of their job to debate and talk about these issues, so it’s certainly not a top-down [where] we tell the schools what they can and can’t do. It’s definitely a collaborative process, so I really wanted that to sort of come across in your research because I saw some of your initial email that this was for a censorship class and it’s super important to get across that it’s not censorship and the book is still available for anyone to check out and read, and it is still an option. If an AP teacher wants to teach it, they absolutely can.
CF: Yes, I totally understand that and thank you for telling me all of that. We were aware. We just chose the case . . .well . . . I think mainly out of my own interest, really, because Rosanna was fine with just about anything. I actually just finished taking a seminar on Toni Morrison last semester. It was a really intense class where we were going through about a book a week. And I had just actually finished reading The Bluest Eye when I saw . . . I think it was the Asheville Citizen-Times article about the challenge. And it came around the time that I was thinking about signing up for the course. So it just seemed like a perfect fit for my background and for a local case as well. I think we were both interested in doing a contemporary case, but in no way, shape, or form will we be saying that this book was banned. We will be saying that it was challenged and exploring what it means for a book to be challenged in Buncombe County. But I’d like to make that clear just so you all know that we will not be misrepresenting this.
SH: Well, Cara, it sounds like you have done lots of research and I wish you very well.
CF: Well, thank you so much, And you the same. And, again, I really do appreciate your time. I know that you all live very busy lives and that the work that you do is often time consuming, to say the very least, so thank you not just for this, but just what you do at the school level in general.
SS: Thank you. So I will send you a little short bio for myself and hopefully get what you need, good luck.
CF: Thank you so much. And I’ll send you the paperwork that I need to as well.
SS: Perfect, that sounds good.
CF: Okay, thank you so much.
SS: Okay. Thank you, Cara. Have a good day.