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Education Reporter

Kansas Parents Organize to Improve High School Reading Lists
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A list of objectionable novels assigned to high school students in suburban Kansas City proved too much for a group of parents there, who have worked for the last year and a half to pressure the Blue Valley school system for better-quality literature assignments and/or parental consent procedures.

Some 600 people in the affluent district have joined a web-based petition drive to ask the school board to replace 14 books in the curriculum that fail the board's own policy requiring the "absence of vulgar language, sexual explicitness or violent imagery that is gratuitously employed."

The offensive titles include:

  • All the Pretty Horses
  • Animal Dreams
  • The Awakening
  • The Bean Trees
  • Beloved
  • Black Boy
  • Fallen Angels
  • Hot Zone
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Lords of Discipline
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • Song of Solomon
  • Stotan
  • This Boy's Life

Many of these books, which are assigned for a grade, include "graphic and vulgar descriptions of sexual acts, murder, rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, child molestation, and torture of people and animals. In addition, some contain an excessive use of profanity," the petition states.

In a detailed website, www.classkc.org, Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools provides the history of the dispute and some objectionable excerpts from each book (which are too graphic to reprint in the Education Reporter). Replacement titles from classic literature are suggested. Concerned citizens are urged to attend and speak at public meetings, contact school board members and look ahead to the July school board elections.

Lisa Friedrichsen, a community college computer professor who has helped coordinate the group, described the effort in a recent interview with the Education Reporter. The website has facilitated spreading the message to parents in the large district, which includes five high schools. A core group of volunteers reviews the hundreds of e-mails received from parents over the last year and provides suggested additions to Friedrichsen, who serves as the webmaster.

"The school board has mostly wanted it to simply go away," she said. The local media are hostile "with the exception of one wonderful talk-show host." A new superintendent, however, has proven more sympathetic than his predecessor.

The Blue Valley district already permits parents to request an alternative reading assignment, but there is no advance notice of R-rated content and students who opt out of the general assignment may have to miss significant class time and face negative peer pressure. Friedrichsen would prefer any of the following alternatives:

  • better book selections in the first place,
  • a book selection committee with genuine parental input, or
  • advance notice to parents with an "opt-in" (instead of an "opt-out") consent procedure.

The group also focuses public attention on the low reading level of the offensive books, in addition to their vulgar content. As determined by an independent rating organization, Renaissance Learning, the average reading grade level of the 14 titles listed above is only 6.4 (meaning they are written at a 6th-grade level). The average reading grade level of a list of classic books recommended as alternatives is 9.7 (9th- or 10th-grade level).

Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools hopes to collect many more signatures on its petition and continue to pressure the school board and administrators for constructive change.

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