Acting on complaints from a parent, Olentangy Ohio District Superintendent Scott Davis removed Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones from Liberty High School's optional summer reading list. Visit the Columbus Dispatch for details.
Below is NCAC's letter to Superintendent Davis. Click here to send him an email and share your views.
Olentangy Local School District
Board of Education Office
814 Shanahan Rd., Suite 100
Lewis Center, OH 43035
Dear Superintendent Davis:
I am writing to express my dismay with your recent decision to remove The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Lovely Bones from Olentangy Liberty High School's summer reading list – and to urge you, on behalf of your constituents and our coalition of 50 national organizations, to reconsider your decision.
Your unilateral choice to remove these two works of literature from the suggested summer reading list controverts basic First Amendment and pedagogical principles, and it denies your community the due process of a proper review, as called for in Liberty's printed policy for fielding public complaints.
You were quoted this morning in the Columbus Dispatch as saying, "I think there is a wisdom of crowds … That's the beauty of public schools. We try to get as much input as possible." However, you allowed the criticism of just a few parents (only one of whom appears to have gone on record) to dictate policy for the entire school. This doesn't seem like an example of allowing the "wisdom of crowds" to have sway, but rather, an instance of caving to a heckler's veto that will restrict the choices available to students without an informed and fair discussion. This is a true disservice to students, faculty, and parents alike – and it is one we hope you will take immediate action to remedy.
The parent noted as the source of these complaints, Barabara Reierson, cites only the use of profanity (identified through an online keyword search), rather than any legitimate pedagogical concern, in her objections to Mark Haddon's novel. She does not even claim to have read the book in its entirety. To quote Millie Davis of the National Council of Teachers of English, "T here may be shock value in isolating and listing selected passages or words from a book, but this does not reveal anything about the fundamental message or theme of a work of literature, nor does it provide insight into the book's value as a subject of study."
Without seriously considering the entire novel, and the context in which objectionable words or scenes are situated, you cannot evaluate its benefits to students. More broadly, it is wrong to suppose that shielding young people from profanity or violence will suffice to keep them safe or well-behaved. If anything, literature offers a venue where students can exert just the sort of critical thinking that will allow them to see such scenes or words in relief, and recognize how or why they may be damaging.
Just such an example is to be found in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones . You stated, "(It) has a very graphic rape scene and, given the millions of books that are out there, there has to be a very strong rationale (for selecting it)." Consider for a moment the fact that nearly 1 in 10 high school students in America (and nearly 1 in 4 female college students) have been the victim of sexual assault. Is there a lesson to be learned in Sebold's harrowing and realistic depiction of this crime? Recognizing the brutality of sexual violence and discussing it openly shows young people just how awful a crime rape is, helps them to protect themselves and one another, and teaches them the importance speaking out. Is this potentially life-saving lesson rationale enough to reinstate Sebold's book on the reading list?
But our concern extends beyond these two books alone, and we feel it important to remind you that First Amendment principles and pedagogical best practices are not at odds.
As many courts have observed, public schools have the obligation to "administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children." Leebaert v. Harrington , 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). Thus, no parent has the right "to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught." Id . Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having "to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school's choice of subject matter." Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc. , 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied , 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). The practical effect of acceding to any parent's request to censor materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.
By offering parents and students the opportunity to request an alternative assignment, you more than adequately address the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to words and ideas; to go further would infringe on the rights of others who are eager for a more inclusive education. If a "lack of communication to parents about how and why the books were selected" is your primary concern, then perhaps a note from teachers with a brief description of the books could accompany the reading list in future years, helping parents and students to choose what is right for them. The primary aim of the summer list is to offer a range of works of literature based on their instructive and literary value, not to dictate a set of choices limited by the concerns of parents who would render judgment on a prize-winning novel by plugging "the F word" into an Internet search engine.
While we can appreciate the pressures you face, we hope you will remedy this decision and reinstate both novels on the recommended summer reading list. In the future, freedom of choice and expression must be allowed to have sway over the desire to please every parent, lest you limit students' educational horizons, overrule the best judgment of teachers, and forego the very principles for which our schools stand.
Joan E. Bertin
National Coalition Against Censorship