DAILY PRESS AND ARGUS: Schools Look to Settle Book Flap

“The American Family Association of Michigan…has brought up the possibility of bringing legal pressure on the (Howell Public School) district. President Gary Glenn said a legal opinion from the national AFA found that distributing a book describing scenes of child rape — as one of the books in question does — violates child pornography laws. He said he passed that opinion to (local parents), who may decide to bring it to the attention of local law enforcement authorities.”

Please join concerned parents in urging Howell High School not to use a book (“The Bluest Eyes”) that graphically depicts the rape of an 11-year old girl by her father.

Howell High School
Office phone: 517-548-6201
Principal’s e-mail: smithw@howellschools.com

Thanks as always for your support!


Gary Signature
Gary Glenn, President
American Family Association of Michigan

Howell, Michigan – February 5, 2007

Schools look to settle book flap
by Dan Meisler

In response to concerns raised over books with sexual content assigned to high school students, the Howell Public Schools is moving toward including more parents in the process of approving curriculum. Marybeth Roose, the district’s director of community education and district communications, said the district is planning to add some parents to the Curriculum Council, which approves all new or amended class material.

“Parents will definitely soon be included,” she said. “Especially in the book review process.” The council has about 50 members, and while it is a “diverse group,” she said, all of the members are either teachers or administrators — although some are also parents as well.

Exactly how many parents will be on the council has yet to be determined, Roose said. Board of Education member Wendy Day said making the council more representative of the community at large is a good idea. Day has been sympathetic to the concerns raised by the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, that material in “The Freedom Writers Diary,” “Black Boy” by Richard Wright and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is not appropriate for high school students. “I would like to see the curriculum committee more reflective of the community,” she said.

Increased parental involvement is one potential solution to the controversy that has placed the Howell Public Schools in the middle of a national debate on what is appropriate for students to read. On one side, conservative, family-values groups such as LOVE are seeking to keep material they deem inappropriate out of the public schools.

On the other side, free-speech and education groups are advocating against what they call attempts at censorship by an extreme minority. The Howell Public Schools Board of Education is set to meet Feb. 12 to decide the fate of the controversial books, all of which are assigned to literature students at Howell High School.

Opting out?
The students at Howell High School can choose to opt out of reading any book — and, indeed, the objections of students is one way the issue came up in the first place.

The ability to refuse to read a certain book and to be assigned a different one is a good solution for one free-speech advocate, Joan Bertin, the executive director of the New York City-based National Coalition Against Censorship. “The middle ground is what you already have in place, which is people who object to a particular assignment can (read) an alternative,” she said.

At recent school board meetings, some residents complained that opting out unfairly stigmatizes students. Day echoed that concern: “It divides the class … I think the opt-out policy is not the most responsible way to approach this.” But Bertin said the concerns of a minority of the population should not determine a school’s curriculum. “The district has to provide a curriculum that meets the needs of all students,” she said. “The state does have regulations which proscribe what students should learn … The state also has an obligation to educate the entire student body, notwithstanding the various differences in opinion.”

Parental involvement
While the district plans to adds parents to the curriculum committee, Day said a group that resembles the state-mandated sex-ed advisory panel may be appropriate. State law requires that half of the members of that panel to be parents of students in the district, and that clergy be included.

Vicki Fyke, spokeswoman for LOVE, also said that’s a good idea. “I’d like to see it be a call to the public, and let people come forward and volunteer,” she said. “Parents with kids in the school should have the right to sit on the council.” Many Howell teachers and administrators argued at recent school board meetings that their training and expertise puts them in a better position to review curriculum decisions.

Bertin agreed, saying that a school district “simply cannot contour the curriculum to any single viewpoint, which is why the curriculum is based upon the judgment of trained educators, not parents.” Day also brought up the possibility of giving parents more information about the books assigned to their children. Right now, parents get a list, but Day suggested adding labels about what sort of material is in the books — like “sexual content” — so that they won’t have to read the dozens of books to know what’s in them.

Board authority
Ultimately, parents’ most effective input into the issue may be a vote for the school board candidate that best reflects their views. Elections are coming up in May, and the Howell Public Schools Board of Education has two seats with expiring terms, held by Jeannine Pratt and Ted Parsons. Parsons has said he won’t run again. So far, one person, Dan Frondriest, has filed papers to be a candidate. The deadline is at 4 p.m. Feb. 13.

Brad Banasik, lawyer for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said local boards have the main responsibility to settle such controversies, as courts have been reluctant to intervene. “That’s one of their policymaking responsibilities, with the advice of the administration, to determine what the curriculum is going to be,” he said, adding that input from teachers and parents is also appropriate. At the same time, First Amendment concerns constrain school boards in their decision-making, Banasik said.
“If you’re going to censor curriculum or remove something, you have to have a legitimate educational reason to do so,” he said. “You can’t remove something based on religious or ideological beliefs … as long as those books have a legitimate educational purpose.”

Ultimately, though, if the board’s decision is based on what is appropriate for students of a certain age, it would probably withstand a court challenge, he said. “If there’s profanity and the administration or board determines that is inappropriate for the age level, courts would probably give deference to the school district,” Banasik said.

Legal threats
Despite the board’s wide authority, the American Family Association of Michigan, a family-values group that boycotted Ford Motor Co. because it advertises in gay-friendly publications, has brought up the possibility of bringing legal pressure on the district. President Gary Glenn said a legal opinion from the national AFA found that distributing a book describing scenes of child rape — as one of the books in question does — violates child pornography laws. He said he passed that opinion to Fyke, who may decide to bring it to the attention of local law enforcement authorities.

You can read the Daily Press and Argus article here.

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