Board requests review of ninth-grade book
‘We All Fall Down’ not to be returned to classroom during review process
A decision to pull a controversial young-adult novel from a freshman class until it could be determined whether it was appropriate instructional material was supported by the Baldwin Board of Education Monday.
In a 5-2 vote, the school board voted against returning copies of "We All Fall Down" to the ninth grade orientation class at Baldwin High School until a committee reviews the Robert Cormier novel and decides whether it should remain part of the curriculum.
The board's decision comes two weeks after Supt. James White stopped the out loud reading of the novel and ordered all six copies of "We All Fall Down" pulled from the class' curriculum following complaints the district received from two parents about the book's violence, explicit language and sexual references.
Because current board policy is not clear about challenged instructional materials, the school board agreed to follow the review process outlined for challenged library and media materials, which includes an evaluation of the material by a committee of district faculty and administrators to determine appropriateness for the classroom.
The board's decision followed a presentation by Curriculum Director Connie Wehmeyer in which she asked board members to consider whether the book was helping students learn the necessary information in an orientation class that was designed to introduce health issues, improve reading and study skills.
"How is this helping us meet our learning objectives for our students?" Wehmeyer said. "How do we know students actually know the health content after reading this book?
"Is our purpose here merely to expose issues?" she said. "Are we to just gloss over this and have students walk out thinking what should I do in that situation?"
Around 100 district faculty and staff, parents and other patrons attended the school board meeting, often breaking out in applause while Wehmeyer and board members discussed the book's appropriateness.
Inside the book
Cormier's novel examines a number of teenage issues like alcohol abuse, divorce and peer pressure, which is why orientation teacher Joyce Tallman stated in the class syllabus in the beginning of the year that "We All Fall Down" could be chosen as a book to be read aloud or used for silent reading or literacy circles. Sexual references and explicit language are used throughout the book.
Even though the book has been used for three years, Wehmeyer gave a detailed summary as to why the book was inappropriate for the class.
The curriculum director even read a sexually descriptive passage from the book before telling board members to imagine how uncomfortable freshmen would be having the book read aloud to them.
"It would be difficult to remove themselves from a piece that gave them discomfort without removing them from the entire book," she said.
Students, she said, would also find it difficult to leave the classroom if they disliked the book for fear of embarrassment.
Board Member Stacy Cohen said Wehmeyer took the passage out of context.
"That's just one small paragraph you're pulling out to illustrate," Cohen said. "Students aren't just hearing that one paragraph. They're hearing pages and pages."
She said passages, like the one read aloud, got students' attention and inspired them to talk about the issues.
Cohen suggested putting the book back in the classroom while a committee reviews it and reports its decision to the school board in a couple of weeks.
"One copy in the library is not fair to all the freshmen in that class," she said. "Here students got cut off in the middle of reading it. It should be made available if some of them want to read it."
Her motion died for lack of a second.
Board Member Blaine Cone said she would like a copy of the book to remain in the library, but not return the other copies to the classroom until the review committee had made its decision.
The only board members to vote against Cone's motion were Cohen and Lonnie Broers.
During her presentation, Wehmeyer recommended the board rewrite the policy on challenged academic materials.
White said other districts' policies, as well as the Kansas Association of School Boards' policy, could be used as guidelines.
Even though Wehmeyer said Tallman made a good-faith effort to teach the course, the curriculum director also told the board that objectives for the orientation class were not clear because they were too broad.
The school board will continue to examine its policy regarding challenged materials, as well as discuss the review committee's decision at its next meeting Oct. 13.
Board Member Scott Lauridsen said he also wanted White to explain to the board how the book challenge got to its current state and the procedure that had been followed.
Lauridsen said he had been made aware some of the first concerns about "We All Fall Down" were brought to the attention of school administrators last spring.
"We could have been having this conversation in May or June before the school year," he said.
Board President Ed Schulte said public comment about the issue would also be allowed at the next school board meeting.
In other business, the school board:
- Approved in a 7-0 vote following executive session to give district faculty and certified and non-certified staff a 2.79 percent salary increase.