Richland School Board Minority Reports

Table of Contents:

Minority Report from P. Strickler

Review of Comments from the Teacher/Librarian Review Committee

Minority Report from J. Peterson

Minority Report from P. Strickler

To: Richland School Board and Administration

From: Phyllis Strickler

RE: Book Challenges

Date: July 1999

As I have been reflecting on the book challenges, and even the adoption of novels last year, it occurs to me that there are really two issues to be considered.

The book challenges assert that we have a number of books which really are not appropriate selections for our curriculum and should be removed from the list of books we teach. as approved curriculum. They base their position on content which is offensive for a number of reasons: sexual presentations, foul language, advocacy of undesirable actions, hopelessness, etc. The same type of concerns were brought up last year at the time of the adoption of the language arts instructional materials. The issue here might be framed in terms of what materials represent the preferred choices as instructional materials for our young people to be taught , and whether or not some of the materials selected may actually be counterproductive or harmful (and certainly offensive) to a segment of our conununity.

The second issue, appears to be one of so called "academic freedom." To many on the staff and the board, this in fact seems to be the overriding issue, the freedom of teachers to choose materials they deem appropriate for their class and students. As long as students have available an option to choose an alternative all is deemed acceptable.

It seems that some of the board and I suspect some of the staff, having viewed this issue entirely from the "academic freedom" vantage point, feel that if the board doesnít approve of the selections somehow that means they donít approve of the teachers, or consider them competent. That is certainly not the case. It is not the staff that is being challenged, it is the materials. I think it imperative that we acknowledge and separate out these two issues and really look at what academic freedom is and is not. I am confident that this will allow us to dismiss the academic freedom issue and focus on the selection of preferred materials which is our legal responsibility.

Points to Consider:

1. According to the unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, academic freedom is: (1) freedom of a teacher to discuss any social, economic, or political problems without interference or penalty from officials, organized groups, etc. (2) freedom of a student to explore or hold any belief without interference from the teacher.

Academic freedom then involves exploration and discussion of issues.

2. District Policy 2331 Controversial Subjects, addresses the academic freedom issue by safe guarding the right to have free access to information and to study controversial issues. We are in no way limiting the teacher or students' freedom to explore various issues (social, economic, or political) by choosing books which meet the community standard for decency (i.e. language usage and sexual descriptions) as already defined in Policy 3220 Freedom of Expression and Policy 8700 Sexual Harassment, and rejecting those which do not meet the standard.

To suggest that all is OK, because there are choices available for students does not make sense. We have already made a statement about the desirability of the book by putting it on the approved list, and by having the teacher identify it as the "preferred" text. To now suggest that the students opt themselves out of a book puts an unnecessary and awkward burden on the students. This is not what is best for our young people.

3. If we examine the review sheet and the minutes from the Language Arts Instructional Novel Committee (henceforth called the Review Committee), one will quickly note that though a number of teachers had significant content concerns about most of the books, not one was willing to actually break ranks and vote against those books. I would suggest to you that was the case because of the so called "Academic Freedom" issue and not because they all felt the choices were really "preferred selections," as evidenced by such comments as a book "they could not teach." The perception is, if a teacher wants to teach a given book, they are the "professional" and should be allowed to do so. In the Review Committee meeting coments, it was noted about two of the reviewing teachers, "Neither thought the books should be dropped, they just thought it was something "they could not teach."

Comments from members of the Review Committee express concerns on a number of fronts; from actual content (such as subject matter, language and sex, violence, etc.) to how that content was delivered. It was discouraging to me to see books on the approved list whose literary merit and content were both concerns to the teachers, (i.e. The Hot Zone, Jay's Journal). How is it we want to endorse books like these? The last two pages contain a brief summary of committee member comments on the challenged books. They are quite revealing.

Note that the elimination of these books from the list of adopted books does not restrict the teachers or students from studying the issues represented in these books, those issues are represented in other books on the adopted list.

4. To not approve a book for teaching in the classroom is not to " ban" the book. Nor is removing a book from the approved list "banning" the book. It is available in the library to be read, it may be on a supplemental reading list. Students are certainly able to read it. But it may in fact for whatever reason, not be the preferred text for the class. To not approve a book also does not mean the issues raised in the book cannot be dealt with in the classroom, this is not an academic freedom issue, it is a selection of preferred text issue.

5. We should be able to identify, in at least broad terms, what is and is not appropriate instructional material content. If we look at Board Policy, we see that this has already been done on a number of levels. As pointed out by our challengers, a number of the selections do not fit the criteria established for appropriateness, i.e. Policy 3220 Freedom of Expression and Policy 8700 Sexual Harassment.

Some may say that those policies are set up for different areas and so are not appropriate and there may be some merit to that argument. But in fact, the policies do identify a conununity standard and I for one need to be convinced that we should allow our teachers to use materials which contradict the community standards and the standards the school district enforces in other realms.

Community and district standards are important and mean something, especially as a matter of building trust with parents and community. We should not be taking action which contradicts policies which have identified those standards..

One only has to look at society at large to see it breaking down at many points. We need to take care in our selections to try and uphold the youth, encourage them and set high expectations for them; not present material which contains language and descriptions that our local newspapers would not publish.

If we are unable to establish any criteria to identify what is acceptable and what is not (other than that a teacher or teachers want to use it) we are in a boat adrift without a rudder.

Whatever we decide in this book challenge, we need to be able to articulate at least in broad terms what is and is not acceptable as part of approved curriculum. If we can identify that in policy in other areas we can do it here.

Comments from the members of the Review Committee

Each number represents comments quoted from a different teacher -

The following comments are actual quotes representing thoughts and concerns from members of the Review Committee:

The Hot Zone: (8 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) poorly written,

(2) not the best written literature,

(3) bad science, too graphic,

(4) some scientific issues not handled carefully,

(5) some science badly written.

(6) It is not a major work of literature. When time is limited, important and quality literature is a high priority.

Jay's Journal: (8 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) weak writing style, language, animal mutilation is graphic

(2) The bizarre nature of the narrator's experiences could unduly frighten students or intrigue them into destructive realms of thought and behavior.

(3) The subject of the occult is very disturbing and I have a difficult time justifying on any level. Is this pertinent to our students? If religious issues are raised I think handling them would be very difficult.

(4) This book offers neither a believable nonfiction book nor a vehicle for rich literary discussion. My concern is in choosing books, that objectionable content have a balance of quality to justify its use.

(5) Should be introduced with a strong disclaimer... "Well be talking about a young man who mistakenly entertains the occult as a option to solve problems."

Additionally two of the teachers pointed out that Go Ask Alice was a better book.

In The Lake of the Woods: (9 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) language and violence - should be used selectively - not as a whole class read,

(2) language, I was able to realize or foresee that an area was forthcoming that was going to be troublesome for me - so I was able to "skip" over certain phrases,

(3) Nihilistic and language; concerned that the author is putting forth a view of life that there is no truth, that reality is only a reconstruction of perception. The explicit sex and violence.

(4) language is very bad

(5) rough language throughout,

(6) language might offend some

The Handmaid's Tale: (8 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) The book has many negative depictions of sex with almost no positive ones. This can be damaging to those who are in the midst of developing attitudes and behaviors regarding their own sexuality. Given the complexity and graphic nature of this novel, the utmost care should be used in teaching it.

(2) The violence and crude sex, although seen often on the big screen, seem shocking on the small page. Not all kids - even seniors are worldly wise. 2 biases: 1 against fundamentalist religion gone wild and 2, industry's raping of the environment. The first bias is the basis for the book. Discussion of author bias is, I think essential to the reading of the book.

(3) Lurid sex scene should not be taken out of context of the book.

(4) I would hate to have a student's initial exposure to sexuality be so negative and controlling.

Obviously a teacher would be accountable in teaching this book with sensitivity and awareness.

Reviving Ophelia: (8 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) An interesting book, but one that needs to be used selectively,

(2) should not be given or taught to a whole class, but to selected students or let students choose,

(3) Ideally for parents (mothers) of 11 year olds. Discussion topics - some teachers are unable? notqualified? to deal with these issues. What if the student really needs or professional help and not just a book?

(4) Should not be used for whole class but for small group offerings. Without offering companion choices this book leaves male students out of the loop. The (book) also needs to be presented not as a scientific piece of nonfiction, but as a sociological exploration.

(5) perhaps this should be a required mother/daughter read - but I question teacher/student. Too many moral and family issues that could get in the way of whole class discussions,

(6) this would not be taught whole class but a student select book.

If this is a book students read on their own, it does not need to be on the adopted book fist.

Sometimes a Great Notion: (7 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) language - can skim over language , not a book that the average reader would be interested in,

(2) tough reading/for very able readers, The beginning is a difficult read and so would require lots of support at the beginning. The changing narrative is a challenge.

(3) strong language, sometimes hard to follow and at times hard to read, especially at the beginning,

(4) difficult reading level, especially for the first 300 pages, long book!

(5) Difficult reading level, especially the beginning of the book. Hard to get into the book. This would only be for a few high level students.

The main concerns for this book appear to be language and the difficulty in reading. Being difficult is certainly not a good reason to remove a book from the curriculum. One might well ask however if this book really represents a very good choice as a classroom book, a preferred book for the curriculum. Why not have it a book on a reading list for more advanced readers who might choose it. This book was on the list for Northwest Writers and Contemporary Literature. Is this a book that all who take these classes can reasonably be expected to complete and comprehend?

The Bell Jar: (9 teacher/librarian reviews)

(1) hard for regular 10th graders,

(2) I'm not sure where this novel fits into the sophomore curriculum, personally I think it is better taught on a senior, maybe junior level,

(3) The book seems an unnecessary tough read for 10th graders.

(4) Better in 12th than 10th.

We adopt books for specific grade levels. It appears this book should not be at the grade level for which it was selected.

Minority Report from J. Peterson

To: Richland School Board

From: Jim Peterson

Subject: Novel Reviews

Date: July 26, 1997

In preparing for our review of "Challenged Novels", I again looked at the findings of the reviewers this summer. I chose to just call these folks "summer reviewers". For each novel, I have listed the separate reviewers comments of concern and identified them as S1, S2, S3, etc. The number of separate reviewers is identified for each novel. If I knew for sure that a certain reviewer was a participant in this current challenge, I did not include them in the set of "summer reviewers". I then listed apparent conflicts with district policies and included personal comments.

 

THE BELL JAR, grade 10, - Four summer reviewers.

S1. A reader with limited understanding of mental illness - it's effect on those close to the victim, its causes - is given an unfortunately incomplete understanding by this book alone.

S2. Really felt this was better topic for college, but, I'm obviously out of touch with the real world of today's teens. Should have class discussions to make sure students understand ideas presented.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Presents graphic violence.
  3. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  4. Presents unhealthy, abnormal sex.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


JAY'S JOURNAL, grade 12, - Four summer reviewers.

S1. Should a disturbed youth read this book? Should a young person learn about suicide? How can I evaluate this book for someone else?

S2. Would not like this book just handed to students and not have some kind of guidance.

S3. It is very disturbing and will not be easily forgotten or dismissed and should make a strong impression on young adults and teens struggling or faced with many of same contemporary issues. Very intense (also a strength) might be difficult for the very squeamish.

S4. This book should not be on any public school reading list. As a mature adult, I found that some of the images depicted haunted my mind for many days. I hate to think what effect they would have on an impressionable teenager.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Presents graphic violence.
  3. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  4. Presents unhealthy, abnormal sex.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


THE HANDMAID'S TALE, grade 12, - Six summer reviewers

S1 The content of the book might offend some people so it should not be required readiing

S2. That it be used with students mature enough to discuss the very important issues.

S3. This book is capable of engendering strong feelings, anger among them - in the reader.

S4. It would be a shame to see this used without addressing the fact that it disturbs some to such great extent.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Presents graphic violence.
  3. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  4. Presents unhealthy, abnormal sex.
  5. Contains copious use of obscenities and profanities.
  6. Is offensive.

This text is so vulgar and so offensive that we decry it's reading in the board room, but somehow believe it is appropriate for the schoolroom. For three pages the book in great detail describes a forced three way sexual act, which finally ends with "the juice of the Commander runs down my legs." In another section the novel describes in precise detail the elements of vulgar, violent, offensive, debasing and maiming of women in porno films. This novel is referenced in AP exam as one of 29 examples of the universe of texts that might be described, and it's author is listed as one of 17 examples of the universe of authors that might serve as representative of a certain subject matter. Certainly these two references do not serve as compelling reasons for inducing students into this mire.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


THE HOT ZONE, grade 10, - Three summer reviewers

S1. The language in the book is unnecessarily profane and crude. Preston lingers on the effects of the virus on sex" organs "Testicles the size of pears, black and putrid, the skin peeling off." One death is described for 15 revolting pages beginning with an all-too-graphic scene involving an overflowing airsickness bag and progressing to this scene in the emergency room: "The black vomit blew up around the scope and out of Monet's mouth. Black-and-red fluid spewed into the air, showering down over Dr. Musoke. It struck him in the eyes. It splattered over his white coat and down his chest, marking him with red slime dappled with dark flecks. It landed in his mouth."

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Presents graphic violence.
  2. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  3. Presents a stream of profanity.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, grade 12, - Two summer reviewers

S1. It is not for a student who finds reading difficult, I kept thinking through the book what are you going to say that is so important in this format that it could not be said in an easier format.

S2 Incredibly vulgar and gruesome. ..feeds the fires of rage, ...themes of lack of truth, and hope and meaning of life, ...distorted view of love and sex, ...confusing fact and fiction - deliberately blurred the distinction between fact and fiction.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Presents graphic violence.
  3. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  4. Presents a strewn of profanity.
  5. Contains copious use of obscenities and profanities.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


REVIVING OPHELIA, grade 10, - Four summer reviewers

S1. Question how it will be used in a classroom. For a girl, it would be like reading a medical book - you begin to have the symptoms of all the diseases. How are boys going to like this book?

S2 This may bring up issues or feelings is some students which they are not equipped to handle alone.

S3 ... is dominated by studies of troubled teens to the point of causing the reader to view their abnormal behavior to be the norm. The studies of happy, well adjusted girls are suggested as abnormal. Does not fit the grade theme. I see no literary merit, only social behavior exploration.

S4. ... this book is bad science. Misrepresentations, undocumented sources, and flawed sources are not ethical methods. This book does not encourage its readers to think for themselves.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  3. Presents/endorses abnormal/deviant sex.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.


SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, grade 12 - One summer reviewer.

S1. Rough language - references to sexual relationships, use of racially demeaning terms. Very difficult reading, ...female characters are either prostitutes or pawns. This may be an accurate representation of social values of that time and place, but is certainly not a good method of encouraging self esteem in young women.

This text violates district policy in that it:

  1. Endorses and promotes drugs and or alcohol.
  2. Presents graphic violence.
  3. Promotes the theme of hopelessness.
  4. Presents a stream of profanity.
  5. Contains copious use of obscenities and profanities, about two per page.
  6. Presents a stream of racial slurs.

No justification has been presented to demonstrate that this novel is essential to our curriculum.