In the Documents: North Carolina Educators Scramble to Comply with State’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law

Educators in North Carolina were uncertain about how to comply with the state’s recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights law after its enactment, with some flagging for removal curriculum that merely implied the existence of LGBTQ people, records obtained by American Oversight and reported on this week by the Charlotte Observer reveal.

North Carolina’s Senate Bill 49 went into effect in August 2023 after the General Assembly overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. The law prohibits “instruction on gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality” in kindergarten through fourth grade classrooms, and requires educators to notify parents if their child chooses to go by a different name or pronoun at school. 

The law places onerous requirements on schools to provide information about all instructional materials to parents, and requires school libraries to give parents access to information about what materials their children have checked out. 

Documents we obtained through public records requests show many officials, teachers, and librarians in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) contended with unclear guidance about what materials were permitted under SB 49, and expended considerable effort to bring curriculum into compliance with the new law. 

“The records show teachers and administrators were confused about whether to remove books or classroom materials but often leaned toward removal of anything politicians might consider controversial,” the Observer’s Rebecca Noel reported.

Last year, American Oversight obtained documents from the Florida Department of Education that revealed how similar confusion fueled by vague restrictions on textbook content led publishers to change math lessons by removing references to different cultures.

The records we obtained from CMS — one of the first districts in the state to implement new policies to align with SB 49 — show district officials advised elementary school principals to ask teachers to review their classroom libraries for compliance with the law just days after the Assembly overrode Cooper’s veto.

In one email sent on Aug. 28, 2023, Jaron Carson, CMS chief equity and school performance officer, and Nancy Brightwell, CMS chief academic officer, wrote, “Principals should advise teachers to remove any books from classroom libraries that have content related to gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality that students may access as part of independent reading tasks.”

In a Sept. 28 email, Kimberly Ray, CMS director of digital learning and library services, told a teacher that she screened books for “alternative use of pronouns, same-sex couples, etc.” 

The records also show that instructional materials related to Title IX — the federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools — were flagged for “potential LGBTQ interpretation.”

Among the materials flagged for review were a video described as “standing up to a bully/harassment/bullying activity” that was produced by Sesame Street, PowerPoint slides showing two women hugging and holding hands, and a resource page that included an organization that supports LGBTQ youth.

Later, the district removed a picture book titled “The Little Library” from a second-grade lesson plan because the text refers to a librarian using the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” The records show a teacher emailed several district employees to ask whether she could continue to teach with the book, having already read it to several classes before noticing the use of the “they” pronoun. The teacher noted that the pronoun usage “was never a discussion point in class, and I received no questions about it.”

After reviewing the picture book, Ray directed the teacher not to continue teaching with it. “This book does use the pronoun ‘they’ for the librarian, so it should not be used in instruction,” Ray wrote. “It is very subtle but with everything going on…”

“Vague laws like this leave wide room for interpretation, which can have a chilling effect,” Chioma Chukwu, American Oversight’s interim executive director, told the Observer. “If there is no clear definition, people will often err on the side of conservatism.”

American Oversight is continuing to investigate right-wing attacks on education and student expression in states across the country. Read more about our recent work here.