LAWRENCEVILLE - Graveyards, dungeons and secret chambers were some of the sites of Harry Potter's toughest battles.

But in the latest chapter, the forces in his favor and his opposition met in an unlikely place: a small hearing room, stuffed full of parents, administrators, students and teachers.

The public hearing held Thursday helped determine whether J.K. Rowling's best-selling book series would stay on the shelves of Gwinnett public schools or be permanently removed.

The debate was started by Laura Mallory, a Loganville mother of four, who filed a complaint condemning the "Harry Potter" books and requesting they be taken out of all school libraries.

"I want to protect children from evil, not fill their minds with it," Mallory said. "The 'Harry Potter' books teach children and adults that witchcraft is OK for children."

The "Harry Potter" series follows the young wizard from the age of 11, when he learns of his lineage, as he's educated at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At Thursday's hearing, Mallory spoke against the books along with four other parents and students. One of them was Stacy Thomas, a mother of five, who said reading the "Harry Potter" series made her daughter turn to witchcraft, ultimately causing their Christian family to lose friends, finances and their reputation.

Her daughter, Jordan Fusch, 15, testified that she began experimenting with tarot cards, curses and seances after reading the books.

"As a former witch, I can tell you that witchcraft is not fantasy. ... I felt I could not escape the clutches of witchcraft," Fusch said. "It has taken several years of counseling to get to where I was before witchcraft and reading 'Harry Potter' books."

School system employees and several parents countered that the book series should stay on library shelves because they made many children, some of whom never liked reading, to tackle the lengthy volumes.

A mother of three, Laura Bowen, whose entire family had read and enjoyed the books, said most students are able to distinguish that the content of the books is not factual.

"A child who is unable to recognize the difference between fantasy and reality is either too young or too immature to read them, or has issues bigger than removing the 'Harry Potter' books is going to solve," Bowen said.

Faye Curlee, the school system's director of media and information services, said the system had received more than 250 letters from parents and children praising the books and asking that they not be removed. She said they promoted positive ideas such as overcoming adversity, courage and the struggle between good and evil.

Reading specialist Lisa Eickholdt testified she had tried reading the series with a class of students who were two levels below in reading comprehension. She said they were bored by reading, or hated it, before they started reading out loud the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

"I noticed the change when they begged me to keep reading at the end of class because we had time for 'a few more pages,'" Eickholdt said. "I noticed the change when they wanted to stay in from recess to read more."

All of the testimony at the public hearing was taped and transcribed. Hearing Officer Sue Ellen Bray will make recommendations to the Gwinnett Board of Education about her observations. All board members also received copies of all the books, the complaint forms and supplemental information supplied by both sides. The board will then have 10 days to vote on whether the books will stay or be removed, likely at the next monthly meeting May 11.

Bray strictly enforced 15-minute time limits for both sides to present their cases. Then six parents and students, who had signed up in advance, had a chance to speak for or against the books.

Gaye Bruce, a parent volunteer at Alton C. Crews Middle School, said she wanted to see the books removed even if they inspired children to read.

"I could counter that argument by saying any topic like 'How to be a terrific terrorist' or 'Car Bombing 101' could be used to entice children to read," Bruce said.

Trickum Middle School student Baillie Hill, 13, said the "Harry Potter" series had made reading fun for kids. She described how her classmates often lined up outside bookstores at midnight every time a new book was released.

"Have you ever seen so many people excited about reading before the 'Harry Potter' series?" she asked.

The book appeal was the first in almost a decade to warrant an official public hearing. The most recent challenges were in 1997, when complainants asked the Board of Education to remove "It's Not the End of the World" by Judy Blume and "Ghost Camp" by R.L. Stein.

The school board allowed both of those books to stay on the shelves, upholding the decision made by the school system's educational committees.

The possibility of their beloved books being taken off school shelves inspired many Potter fans to attend the hearings. Some high school students silently sat in the back, wearing T-shirts that read, "Censorship Destroys Education."

Lynne Davis pulled her two daughters, LeAnne and Jana, out of Dacula High School early so they could be there for the 2 p.m. hearing. With their parents' permission, she also brought their good friends and fellow fans, Amanda and Laura Graves. The girls said they didn't understand why the books were involved in a religious debate when they were fantasy novels.

"I was kind of hurt that the public couldn't ask them questions," Laura, 16, said. "I've read the series many times and never once did I read a quote about religion. I wanted to ask if there were quotes in there that were religious."