A rational approach to school book challenges

Kudos to the Sioux Falls School District for the way it is handling a recent request that the book Give a Boy a Gun be removed from a middle school library. The book, published in 2000, tells the story of two high school sophomores who are tired of being bullied, bring an arsenal of weapons to school and take their fellow students hostage. A parent objected because he feared the book “may give ideas to troubled youth.”

Rather than having a knee jerk reaction, the School District follows an established policy for such complaints. The administration appoints a review committee made up of at least two teachers, the building principal, two parents or guardians, and “two students if appropriate.” The committee, chaired by a curriculum coordinator, must assess the book or other material in light of the following:

  1. Extent to which it supports the curriculum;
  2. Qualifications of the author, artist, composer, producer, and/or publisher of the material;
  3. Suitability of the subject matter, vocabulary, and presentation for the students’ experience and maturity and for the intended use of the material;
  4. Content of the material in terms of currency, accuracy, and consistency with curriculum goals; and
  5. Literary and/or artistic merit.

The committee’s recommendation that the book be left in the school’s library now goes to a 21-member council before being the subject of a public hearing in front of the school board. That hearing is scheduled for December 21. While I certainly do not fault the parent for raising his concern, it is a relief to see the issue being handled in an objective and fair fashion.
It was the fifth book challenged in the school district in the last three years. The prior challenges:

  • The Dead Man in Indian Creek, about a boy who discovers a corpose and believes his mother’s boyfriend is involved in the death, was challenged at an elementary school in April 2003. The book, recommended for ages 8-12, was left on the shelf without restriction.
  • Iguanodon, apparently a book about dinosaurs, was challenged at a different elementary school in October 2004 and was left on the shelf without restriction.
  • Bad Girls In Love, dealing with junior high students falling in love for the first time, was challenged at a third elementary school in March 2005. Intended for ages 9-13, the book was described by School Library Journal as containing “casual references to hot topics from sex, drinking, and drugs to affirmative action.” It was moved from the elementary school to middle school.
  • I Know This Much Is True is a 900+ page book selected for “Oprah’s Book Club” in the summer of 1998. It was challenged at Lincoln High School in December 2005 but was left on the shelf without restriction. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the book uses a pair of twins as the focus of a story involving “mental illness, dysfunctional families, [and] domestic abuse” and “[l]ong stretches are filled with the raunchy, foul-mouthed humor of [the] teenaged [narrator] and his friends.”

The newspaper article doesn’t indicate who made those four complaints or why. It does appear, though, that those decisions were likewise the product of rational and reasoned analysis. Not only is that gratifying, but so is the School District’s statement of policy regarding school materials:

One of the most important goals of education is to help young people understand the diversity of viewpoints, religions, and cultures in the world and learn to make informed choices. An individual’s freedom to read and explore diverse ideas and viewpoints is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. As expressed in the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement, “We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture.”

it is commendable that the School District recognizes this by written policy while also acknowledging a parent’s interest in being involved in the process of educating their children.

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Darmouth College, June 14, 1953

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