Archive for Wednesday, October 15, 2003

School board examines proposed book policy

October 15, 2003

There is not yet a new policy for handling challenged materials in the Baldwin School District, but the school board is a little closer to agreeing on one.

The board met into the early hours of Tuesday morning as it dissected the most recent proposed policy -- often word by word -- in an attempt to find some middle ground. No final decisions were made, but board members reached verbal agreements on several changes and additions.

All of the board members had input, but Board Member Stacy Cohen was the most critical about the newest proposal.

"There are still so many things wrong with the new policy, I wouldn't know where to begin almost," Cohen said.

The proposed policy was drafted by Supt. James White and Curriculum Director Connie Wehmeyer. Wehmeyer told the board she and White had been given little time to put together a policy based on Kansas Association of School Boards' guidelines, like the board members had instructed.

"Respectfully, we were given four days using KASB guidelines," she said. "I'm not advocating this has to be what it says. This isn't perfect policy. Suggestions would be embraced."

The proposed policy comes following a month of controversy stemming from a parent complaint about the use of "We All Fall Down" by Robert Cormier in a freshman orientation class at Baldwin High School. The book has been pulled from the class.

The school board asked that a new policy be drafted because current policy did not clearly specify guidelines for challenged curriculum materials, only media center materials.

Cohen wasn't sure why the policy needed to be completely rewritten, she said, unless it was an attempt to make it easier to remove books.

"There was nothing wrong with the current policy," she said.

One of her biggest criticisms with the new policy was with the requirements for selecting media center materials. She said the criteria listed, like correct use of language and unbiased in point of view, was too vague, and therefore too restrictive, especially for fiction books.

Cohen brought with her two books -- "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger -- to use as examples.

"Neither of these books could be selected for the library using the criteria," she said after reading passages from the Twain novel.

Cohen suggested the criteria for selecting library materials be divided into two categories -- fiction and non-fiction.

"I don't think you can hold fiction and non-fiction to the same standards," she said.

Also discussed at length was the establishment of a committee to review challenged materials. Questions were also raised by board members as to the procedure that would be followed for challenged materials and where the review committee falls in that process.

There were also concerns by board members about how the challenged book "We All Fall Down" was going to be handled under a new policy.

Board Member Scott Lauridsen said that was something the board would have to deal with once the new policy was in place, but it couldn't affect the board's decisions in making a policy that was fair.

Board members weren't the only ones talking about the proposed policy. Earlier in the evening, district patrons and faculty had an opportunity to voice concerns about the proposal.

District patron Betty Bullock told the board she was against a new review policy.

"The existing policy was never given a chance to work," she said.

Eighth-grade language arts teacher Donna Pratt cautioned the board to protect intellectual freedom, which she didn't think was being done with the proposed policy.

"The proposal is not only excessive, it directly micromanages what goes on in the classroom," she said.

Others weren't as vocal about the proposed policy as they were of their support for White in his pulling of the Cormier novel from the classroom.

"We are totally in favor of what Mr. White has done," Kathy Grissum, a parent of a high school student, said. "We don't need to teach smut. We don't need to have trash like that in the classroom with 14 year olds."

Roger Dressler agreed.

"I applaud Mr. White for standing up for what he thought was wrong," Dressler said. "In my opinion, I read excerpts of it, I think it's smut. We don't read smut in the classroom."

Toby Ebel, a former high school English teacher, said reading at the high school and junior high levels is declining, and encouraged the use of books like "We All Fall Down" if it got students to read.

Ebel said he owed the district thanks for peaking the interest of students.

"Thanks for handling this in such a way that this book got read," he said.

No decisions about a new policy were finalized at Monday's meeting. Lauridsen requested a revision of the proposed policy showing suggestions and changes the board made. The revised policy will be discussed at a later meeting.

In other business, the school board:

  • Approved in a 6-0 vote to send a letter of support to the Douglas County Commission for a half-cent, county-wide sales tax. Board President Ed Schulte abstained. If eventually passed, the half-cent sales tax would increase revenue for the school districts in the county.
  • Recessed the meeting to 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at the district office. Because the policy discussion lasted about four hours, the board could not address other items on the agenda. Those items will be discussed at the recessed meeting.

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