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2016-08-10 / Featured / Front Page

National Coalition Against Censorship warns School Board book removal infringes on student rights

By Rich Griset
STAFF WRITER

In the aftermath of Chesterfield County Public Schools removing books from its summer reading lists, the National Coalition Against Censorship has penned a letter addressed to school superintendent James Lane.

The letter states that the organization is “deeply concerned with recent issues surrounding the Chesterfield School District’s [sic] treatment of allegedly controversial books.”

The controversy started when a group of parents raised objections to books that were placed on this summer’s reading list for CCPS’ middle and high school students, with one parent calling the books “pornographic” and filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.” The books removed included Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park,” “Dope Sick” by Walter Dean Myers and “Tyrell” by Coe Booth.

The school system revised its reading lists and removed the offending books, but included links to other organizations’ book lists that included some of the controversial titles.

The updated lists stated that the school system “does not endorse any specific titles on these lists. Not all parents will consider all of the books on these sites to be appropriate, so parents are encouraged to visit these sites for reviews to determine which books are appropriate.” The parents were offended by the links on those lists, and the school system announced that a panel would meet in August to discuss the books in question. That panel will include three parents from the County Council of PTAs, one principal, two teachers and one librarian.

Stating that she’s responding first as a parent with children in CCPS, state Sen. Amanda Chase entered the fray, saying that librarians who continued to recommend books that were inconsistent with CCPS’ “core values” should be “dismissed” after a warning. She also said that the offending books should be removed from school libraries, and that warnings should notify parents and students of a book’s content before it is assigned in school. The controversy has since attracted national attention.

In its letter, the NCAC says “we strongly urge your district’s panel to recommend keeping the books in libraries and to reject the idea of labeling and rating books.”

Speaking on behalf of the NCAC, Josh Zuckerman, program associate with the organization’s Youth Free Expression Program, says they object to the censoring and labeling of books deemed appropriate by educational experts like librarians.

“If the experts have selected a book, the kids should have the right to read the book,” Zuckerman says, adding that ensuring this happens is the core mission of the Youth Free Expression Program’s Kids’ Right to Read Project. “Our purpose is to educate panels and to educate our audiences about issues they might not be aware [of].”

He disagrees with labeling and says that if alternative assignments become too frequent, the additional workload may encourage teachers to choose books that won’t be considered controversial.

“The minute you label a book sexually explicit, you ignore most of the content of the book. In many cases, you create a stigma on the book, and you are saying the book is inappropriate for children, which is often not the case,” Zuckerman says. “It’s important to note that many of our classic literary works are considered inappropriate by a lot of people,” naming Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” as examples.

When asked about the letter and the review panel at the School Board’s retreat last week, Lane deferred questions to school system spokesman Shawn Smith. Smith didn’t respond to questions from the Observer by press time.

“National Coalitions based out of New York should not dictate local school policy in Virginia,” says Chase, responding to the NCAC’s letter via email. “These issues are best addressed by a local coalition of parents, teachers and elected school board members at the local level, and at the state level where appropriate.”

In a phone conversation, Chase stated that she plans to further address the controversy on her live weekly radio program, “Cut to the Chase with Amanda Chase” on AM 820 during her Aug. 18 show.

Shelley Murray, a longtime librarian at Meadowbrook High and former English teacher who has spoken out about the controversy in the past, says the letter raises important issues.

“They’ve covered all their bases,” she says. “It’s very thorough. I’m no lawyer, I’m not an expert, but it seems like it would be wise to pay attention.”

Addressing Chase and the parents who first questioned the books, Zuckerman struck a conciliatory tone.

“It’s important to note that Sen. Chase and these parents do have very good intentions,” Zuckerman says. “They genuinely want what they think is best for their schools and for their children, and no one is accusing them of doing anything to the contrary. However, we do think that labeling and rating books is inherently problematic.”

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