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Booking it on Free Speech

| News | November 16, 2017

In 2009, not long after Joe Messina joined the William S. Hart Union High School District board, a parent came to the board to complain about a book that appeared on the honors English program’s summer reading list.

The book, “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver, was challenged because it included sexual scenes and vulgar language (a plot summary found online mentions a child was sexually abused; Messina said he remembered being shown a depiction of rape).

Messina said he and then-member Robert Jensen wanted a note sent home to parents warning them of the content of the book, but were outvoted.

“The superintendent (Jaime Castellanos) said this is akin to censorship,” Messina recalled. “No, this is parent involvement.”

Something similar is happening in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. According to the Thousand Oaks Acorn, the board president fast-tracked an amendment to the instructional-material policy that gives parents a greater voice in choosing district-wide curriculum and a greater say in what their children are asked to read.

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One board member wants teachers to have to notify parents — and get a signature — before their children are assigned books with mature content such as rape, violence and suicide. There would be a standardized notation on the class syllabus: “This book was published for an adult readership and thus contains mature content. Before handing the text to a child, educators and parents should read the book and know the child.”

The proposal also includes this interpretation of mature content: “any piece of literature or nonfiction work (that) is potentially objectionable to someone for some reason.”

Books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which Conejo Valley students have read, would qualify. Any new titles would have to pass muster with a committee of parents and community members before being sent to the board for final approval.

Two committees were formed last month to write a single policy that would codify the district’s longstanding practice of providing alternative assignments to the small number of students whose parents deem a novel inappropriate. The committees comprise teachers and board members, but not parents, something Messina doesn’t understand.

“Where’s the parent committee?” Messina said. “I agree that parents should have more control over what they (children) can read. You can’t give up the children to somebody who says, ‘We got it covered.’”

Students and the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom have cried censorship. Hart District spokesperson Dave Caldwell said, “Censorship is a big word,” but added the district certainly welcomes parental involvement.

“Parents can definitely voice opinions either way,” he said. “Parents also have the right to opt out of (their child’s) reading something.”

In the Hart district, like with any public school district in the state, the lengthy list of approved readings – and that means textbooks as well as literature – is set by the state Department of Education, which also includes advisories for books that contain mature content.

Then what Messina calls a “curriculum council,” which includes teachers, parents and administrators, weighs in and narrows the list to several choices from which a teacher could choose; therefore, not every student in the district will read the same books or textbooks.

But before any teacher gets to choose, the board has to approve the list, Caldwell said. Of the three above-mentioned titles, only “Catcher” has been approved, he said.

Messina said the board also has the right to nix titles.

“We rarely push back unless someone complains,” he said. “To say one book is good for everybody, I don’t know how you do that.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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