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Education Reporter

Mothers Challenge Assignment of Bad Books

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Is it "censorship" to exclude a book from a high school or junior high curriculum based on its content? Who should decide which books children may access in their school libraries? Adults have the freedom to choose their own reading material. Do children have that freedom, too?

Children's Library Use: Who's in Charge?

"The First Amendment restricts the government from censorship, not parents," says Laurie Taylor Masterson, mother and activist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Masterson believes it is her responsibility to teach her children ethics and right conduct, and to protect them from sexually and otherwise explicit books until they are mature enough to evaluate such books for themselves. Therefore, she was alarmed when she discovered in 2005 that her daughters' school library made several sexually graphic and explicit books available to 6th and 7th graders. She began a systematic search through the library's shelves, and found dozens of books with strongly objectionable content. For years, parents have protested the availability to public school children of books such as those by Judy Blume, which include fictional accounts of teenagers engaging in sexual activity.

Masterson also found many books in an entirely different category. These were nonfiction books overtly teaching middle schoolers a very specific view of sexuality - in Masterson's words, the view that it's all right "to have sex whenever, however, and with whomever they want." Some books included fully nude, explicit drawings, instructions on how to perform specific sex acts, and positive references to bestiality, group sex, and the use of pornography by minors (which may mean these books actually violate the law). Furthermore, the shelves also teemed with "young adult novels" like Blume's but far more explicit, sexually violent, and disturbing. Some books in the library had been partially published in Playboy. Masterson could hardly believe that her children could be exposed to such materials without her knowledge, permission, or input.

She began a campaign to inform other parents about the books, and to assert her right as a parent to limit what she saw as harmful influences on her children. "I never asked for any books to be banned, burned or anything else," she explained in a recent talk. "I only wanted to restrict what my children would read." Nevertheless, some journalists decried her efforts, labeling her a "book-burner" and a "bigot."

Many parents stepped up to second Mrs. Masterson's complaints, and to join the group she started, called "Parents Protecting the Minds of Children" (teachclean.com). Together, these parents raised public awareness of the issue, and appealed for changes in library policy. Beginning in June of 2006, Fayetteville public schools conceded to parents the right to prevent their own children from checking out specific books. The school board also moved two of the most objectionable nonfiction books to the parent section of the library - though it also said children could access the parent section freely.

NC-17 Curriculum Content:
Is It Really Necessary?

Debate over controversial material in books also raged in Cook County, Illinois, in 2006. In Cook County's District 214, board member Leslie Pinney questioned the appropriateness of nine books as required reading for area high schoolers. "High school students are not college students," she reminded the community and the other board members. "While in high school we hope to prepare them for college, we can still do so without giving them R-rated material from which to learn."

Pinney publicized excerpts that she thought detracted from the books' overall literary merit and value for high school coursework. Books on the list contained graphic descriptions, not only of adolescent promiscuity, but also of sexual torture, incest, infanticide, and bestiality. Since some of the books on the list were written at a 6th grade reading level, Pinney asked, how could their supposed literary value justify forcing teenagers to read such disturbing material?

Leslie Pinney succeeded in raising parents' awareness about the curriculum and required reading lists at their children's schools. Vigorous debate on the issue culminated in five hours of public discussion on the evening of the board's vote on the books with 1,000 people attending the meeting. When the board finally voted at 1:30 a.m., six board members voted to keep the books in the curriculum, and only Pinney voted to replace them. This vote did not reflect the community's stance on the issue, since polls revealed that 44% of area parents stood with Ms. Pinney.

Although the effort to replace the books did not succeed, Pinney and other community members have been able to challenge District 214 to make good on its "controversial issues" policy and its "alternative assignments" policy. While the district has claimed to offer alternative assignments if a student or parent requests one, in practice this has not helped students to avoid objectionable assignments.

For example, one student requested an alternative assignment when his class was required to watch an R-rated movie. Instead of assigning him a different movie or a comparable project, his teacher asked him to write a 12-page paper. The school district is now working with parents to ensure that alternative assignments will be fair.

However, Pinney and Citizens for Quality Education, a group of concerned parents in the area, still say the system leaves much to be desired. Students who ask for alternative assignments become targets of ridicule from their peers, and this also often pits children and parents against each other. Many parents wish students had to "opt in" to reading or watching explicit materials with parental permission, rather than having to ask to "opt out."

Even more, they wish the curriculum would take more advantage of the many outstanding books that could introduce high schoolers to great literature, without flooding them with violent, often sordid situations and descriptions.

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