Book battle erupts in a Georgia school district. Will more follow?

Chelle Brown holds Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while speaking at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. Brown and some other parents advocate for removing books they deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Chelle Brown holds Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing while speaking at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. Brown and some other parents advocate for removing books they deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Kemp is expected to sign bill expediting the process for removing books from schools

A fight over censorship in schools has divided parents in Cherokee County, where some say children are being exposed to pornography instead of educational literature.

The rumbling in one of north metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing, conservative communities could foreshadow what may be coming for other parts of the state if Gov. Brian Kemp signs legislation to expedite the process for removing books from schools.

Cherokee’s disagreement is inflamed by the May primary election, with control over the school board at stake.

“The only purpose of these books is to sexualize our children and normalize harmful behaviors,” said Chelle Brown, who said she has kids in the local elementary schools. “We owe it to our children and communities to start speaking up.”

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Audience members at a Cherokee County school board meeting cheer for a speaker who advocates for removing books some deem objectionable. Members of the public voiced their opinions at the school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Audience members at a Cherokee County school board meeting cheer for a speaker who advocates for removing books some deem objectionable. Members of the public voiced their opinions at the school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Audience members at a Cherokee County school board meeting cheer for a speaker who advocates for removing books some deem objectionable. Members of the public voiced their opinions at the school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Her comments during a recent school board meeting drew loud cheers. She backs four of 10 Republicans vying for four seats on the seven-member board.

Moments earlier, Sean Jackson, a Democrat running for the board, said he was appalled by “misinformed” people who were “tearing down” the board and “harassing” teachers.

“The embarrassment has spread to national news,” he said. “It’s absurd.”

The election will determine whether the book critics are a relevant force or a vocal minority in Cherokee. Likewise, Kemp’s signature on Senate Bill 226 could reveal whether the movement that led lawmakers to pass the measure has statewide momentum or is just a localized fad.

Lawmakers have disagreed about that, with Republicans saying Democrats were exaggerating the potential impact.

“I don’t think this is going to instigate a surge in challenges,” Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, said during a debate on the floor of the state House last month. He said the legislation would merely streamline the process for removing “degrading” books.

But Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, said she expected an “onslaught” of challenges that would overwhelm school administrators. “I think there are people poised and waiting,” she said.

Some feel the challenges in Cherokee so far have taken passages out of context.

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Lily Carras, 17, speaks out against removing books some deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Lily Carras, 17, speaks out against removing books some  deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Lily Carras, 17, speaks out against removing books some deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“As someone who has also read the books currently being challenged, I can say with full confidence that they are not pornographic material,” Lily Carras, 17, a junior at Sequoyah High School, told the board. “Books stand paramount as a weapon against ignorance.”

Two-thirds of Cherokee County voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. That solidarity masks a history of infighting within the local GOP, a division reflected in the ample slate of Republican school board candidates.

The district drew national attention after Brown was ruled out of order at last month’s school board meeting while reading a sex scene from a book available in the high school libraries. A board member interrupted her, noting that younger children might be watching the streamed meeting.

“I know everyone doesn’t feel the same way, but I don’t judge a book without actually reading it,” Barbara Jacoby, the school board’s spokeswoman, wrote on her personal Facebook page after the exchange. She said that she read “Homegoing,” the book Brown had objected to and found felt it had value for high-achieving high school students.

Last month, Brown sent the district a list of 225 titles that she thinks do not belong in public libraries. In recent months, individuals have lodged formal challenges against 14 books, triggering reviews.

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Brittany Bengert reacts to a speaker who advocates for removing certain books from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public spoke both for and against removing books that some deem objectionable at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Brittany Bengert reacts to a speaker who advocates for removing certain books from Cherokee County schools.  Members of the public spoke both for and against removing books that some deem objectionable at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Brittany Bengert reacts to a speaker who advocates for removing certain books from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public spoke both for and against removing books that some deem objectionable at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on Thursday, April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Amina Borrero, a local parent, serves on a panel reviewing some of those challenges. She said the objections she has seen are often against books by authors of color. Others have noted that challenged books often cover race or gender issues.

The complainants seem to have “a problem with people describing their world, which makes me think that you clearly don’t know anything about anyone else’s world except for your small bubble you may live in,” Borrero said.

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Jessica Rhines advocates for removing books some deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Jessica Rhines advocates for removing books some deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Jessica Rhines advocates for removing books some deem objectionable from Cherokee County schools. Members of the public voiced their opinions at a Cherokee County school board meeting in Canton on April 21, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

But Jessica Rhines told the board that, as a parent, she doesn’t want her children reading titles unless she approves them in advance.

“It’s not about restricting the literature from children so that they can’t learn,” she said. “We’re simply asking for a safe space for these children.”

Many of those who spoke against banning books wore yellow, harkening to yet another political kerfuffle in Cherokee. In that scrum nearly a decade ago, a school board member labeled her political opponents “minions,” like the jelly bean characters in a popular animated film.

The movie minions were earnest but too distracted to be effective. The Cherokee minions, however, did see that board member removed.

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