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Board keeps 'Harry Potter' on shelves

LAWRENCEVILLE - In the past, Harry Potter has successfully outsmarted wizards, defeated giant serpents and escaped certain death. Now, without so much as a wave of his wand, it looks like he has also prevailed in his latest struggle.

The Gwinnett Board of Education ruled Thursday that the best-selling book series will not be removed from the shelves of school libraries. This is its final decision on the issue, which began with a book appeal by Laura Mallory, a Loganville mother with three children at J.C. Magill Elementary School.

The decision was the culmination of a process that began last November, when a school committee deliberated on removing the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Most recently, advocates and opponents of the series clashed at a public hearing held on April 20. While Mallory and several others argued that the books encourage witchcraft, casting spells and demonic activity, Harry Potter supporters said they promoted positive themes and encouraged kids to read books cover to cover.

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

School board members disagreed on the relative merits of the books, but the board voted unanimously that they should stay.

District 2 Representative Daniel Seckinger and Chairman Robert McClure said they had not made their decision because it was the popular one or because the books encouraged kids to read. Their main priority was whether the books were appropriate for students. They also said the fact that Mallory had not read the book series was not a consideration in their decision.

"It really is irrelevant if the person has read the whole book or not, if there is one section that is obscene," McClure said. "Our process does pre-suppose that one person could be right and a lot of other people could be wrong."

Board member Mary Kay Murphy, a former English teacher, said she thought the books were a great way of teaching children critical reading through the use of allegories, irony and parables.

"I support the value of the 'Harry Potter' books to develop children's imaginations and ability to read on several levels, including analogy. And I will support keeping the books in the schools' media centers," Murphy said.

Hearing officer Su Ellen Bray had strongly recommended to the board that the books not be removed, based on testimony gathered at the public hearing. Part of her reasoning was that the series was fantasy, not fact, and that most kids old enough to read the books would understand that.

The book appeal has attracted international attention to Gwinnett County schools, primarily through postings on blogs and online message boards. Bray wrote that removing the books based on Mallory's arguments "would open this very fine school system to ridicule by many of its citizens as well as citizens of the nation."

By allowing the books to remain, the school board followed its precedent of upholding the decisions made by school system committees. In the past two book appeals in 1997, the board agreed with the committees that books by R.L. Stein and Judy Blume should stay on shelves.