An Orange County elementary school has upheld for the second time the book “King & King,” about two princes who fall in love and get married.
But a parent has appealed the school’s ruling to the Orange County Schools superintendent and filed a grievance against the teacher and the assistant principal who gave him the book after he said a boy in the class was called gay and teased about acting like a girl.
The fallout has frustrated teacher Omar Currie, his supporters and his critics. Currie feels disrespected as a teacher and gay man. Brandy Davis, who filed the complaints, and some others who objected to the book feel disrespected as parents and community members.
And it turns out this isn’t the first time the book has been read at the school.
The walls of Currie’s third-grade classroom at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School are bare now except for some blue and purple dinosaurs. They’ve been stripped of distractions and possible answers during end-of-grade testing.
In his second year at the school, Currie is proud of his work. Only two of his 24 students could read on grade level at the start of the school year. Now 18 are on grade level, and the two who started at third grade are at fifth grade. Currie serves on a school leadership committee.
He read the book to deal with a bullying issue and says the name-calling stopped. He won’t name the boy’s parents because he says that would identify the child. So far the child’s family has remained silent, though Currie says the father and grandmother have privately told him they support what he did.
He might feel vindicated, but the school rulings came with a new policy from Principal Kiley Brown that teachers must now notify parents of all the books they read in class. Brown, in her first year as principal, declined requests for an interview.
Currie, 25, sees a double standard.
“I was told that it’s controversial, that I should send home notices (that say) ‘Oh, your family’s controversial, so you need to sign off on having your family reflected in our building’ – because that’s what that letter does,” he said.
“How insulting that is for those families,” he said. “How insulting. And we should be ashamed for even considering that we should be doing that because a minority of people find it offensive.”
The school has held two public meetings since Currie read “King & King.” The meetings are required when parents file formal objections to teaching materials. The school upheld the book after the first complaint, then went through the process again for two later complaints.
About 200 people attended the second meeting in the school gym. About three-quarters of the crowd, some from outside the community, supported Currie’s reading of the book, which he learned about while attending the UNC School of Education.
That’s where Rory Santaloci learned about the book, too.
Santaloci, a former teacher at Efland-Cheeks, read it to his fourth-grade students three years ago when Currie was student-teaching in the next classroom.
“I didn’t have any complaints,” Santaloci said in an interview Thursday. “I didn’t hear a single word about it. ... If you read the book, it is not about sexuality.”
In the story, a queen seeks to marry off her son so she can retire. But the prince is not attracted to any of the princesses. He is, however, smitten by the brother of one of them. The two princes marry and, in fairy tale tradition, live happily ever after. On the last page, after the story ends, the two princes kiss, their lips covered by a red heart.
Currie says he read the book after the name calling, because his class was studying “fractured” fairy tales, or tales with a twist. He said he asked the class afterward what the moral of the story was. One child said you shouldn’t be mean to anybody. Another said you should listen to your parents. He said three or four students said they were uncomfortable with the story, and he told them that was OK.
Six former teachers at the school recently wrote the school district to support Currie’s reading of the book.
“As former employees and people who deeply care about the community, as well as teachers in Orange County, we find it profoundly troubling the extent to which Mr. Currie has been scrutinized,” their letter said. “We cannot help but question the issues of privilege and marginalization at play in this current situation.
“Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that the district and administration is requiring that teachers submit for approval the use of any literature that has not been pre-approved by the district,” the letter said. “Implementing this kind of system inevitably sets up an inequitable structure and barrier to justice-oriented practices, and ultimately deprofessionalizes teachers.”
Santaloci, now a researcher based at New York University who studies how well high schools prepare black and Hispanic males for college and careers, was one of those who signed the letter.
“Omar Currie is a phenomenal, thoughtful, really well-prepared teacher,” he said by phone. “Just in his student teaching year, he was leagues ahead of me. He was in control of his classroom. He cared about his students.”
Santaloci, who is not gay, said he thinks Currie’s under fire because he is.
“I honestly think it’s homophobia,” Santaloci said. “It’s a shame he’s being scrutinized this way.”
Several critics at the hearing said Currie is a good teacher or that they have heard he is a good teacher. They said their objections are not personal.
Davis was one of them. Her husband, Rodney, held a sign outside the school a week before the hearing saying Currie had read a book about “homosexual relationships” without getting the principal’s or parents’ approval.
“It’s not about being gay or straight,” Brandy Davis said in an interview. “That’s not what this is about.”
The 34-year-old nurse grew up in Efland. She attended the school, and she and her husband have a second-grader and a fourth-grader there now.
“I think there are a lot of people who do not support the book, but they are not willing to speak up,” she said. On Thursday, she said she got an anonymous letter in her mailbox about a child who had committed suicide because he was gay.
“We’re already being targeted,” she said.
Currie also got an anonymous letter recently, with a cartoon pamphlet that implied he was going to hell.
Davis said that she couldn’t speak about earlier readings of the book but that this one led to controversy because a parent who picked up her child that day saw the girl was visibly upset. The girl told her parent about the book.
Davis said she complained because “King & King” is not part of the school curriculum and because Currie did not get his principal’s OK before reading it.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate material,” she said. “My children did not know what homosexuality was until all this came about. That is something we were going to talk to them about.
“I’m just really disappointed,” she said. “I grew up here. My family went to school here. I’m very sad that people who came from the outside, people who have to Google the community to get here, would do something like this.
“They’re my children. I thought we were supposed to be on a team,” she said. “Parents and teachers are supposed to be on the same team.”
Some critics who say “King & King” promotes a “homosexual agenda” point to teacher Omar Currie and Assistant Principal Meg Goodhand co-leading a workshop at the LGBT Conference in the South in April.
According to the conference website, Goodhand has studied difficulties in schools for children who don’t fit into traditional roles. “Meg’s research shares a perspective that through transformative learning opportunities, educators can reframe their attitudes, beliefs and knowledge about gender nonconformity, the LGBTQ community and the heteronormative culture within schools and society,” the website says. “Ideally, with this new understanding, educators as social justice leaders will be willing to disrupt the heteronormative culture of a classroom and their schools.”
Currie says the two educators shared a panel with two university professors who talked about suicide rates, while he and Goodhand talked about ways to respond to classroom scenarios. He said connecting his role at the conference to an agenda was absurd.
“I think that anyone who knows me as a teacher would understand that that is an absurd claim,” he said. “Every single decision is based on what is best for my kids, not what is best for Omar Currie. I am a champion for my kids. I fight tooth and nail for every single thing that my kids need.”
Goodhand declined to be interviewed but provided a copy of a statement she read at the Efland-Cheeks hearing.
“In my office, on my shelf I have books that speak to issues of social justice that I lend to teachers on a regular basis, just as I did with ‘King & King,’” she wrote.
“Efland-Cheeks’ school vision is to help each child reach their highest potential academically, socially and emotionally, to become a productive member of society,” the statement said. “However, we know that a school culture where children are stigmatized, isolated, or face discrimination for any reason, including gender diversity, or due to having same-sex families, suffer and cannot reach their full potential.”