In September 2009, the Kids’ Right to Read Project received a report that students’ access to books at Panther Valley Middle School is being severely restricted by a new rating system. In response KRRP sent this letter:
Ms. Rosemary Porembo, Superintendent
Panther Valley School District
1 Panther Way
Lansford, PA 18232
September 24, 2009
Dear Ms. Porembo,
We write to express our concern that student access to books at the Panther Valley Middle School Library is being severely restricted as a result of the school’s rating system for books. As reported to us, students may not borrow certain titles even if they have parental permission. We believe this constitutes censorship and not only violates students’ constitutional rights but also undermines their education.
We understand that the policy applies to books such as Walter Dean Myer’s Shooter (Harper Collins) and Patricia McCormick’s Cut (Push), and that the purpose is to “prevent school violence.” However laudable that goal, it cannot and need not be achieved at the expense of constitutional rights.
Books do not cause violence, people do. Of course, students get ideas from books. But it’s a considerable leap to conclude that students will be moved to become violent as a result of reading a book. Your policy gives undeserved credence to the bogus argument that “the book made me do it.” All this does is suggest that students can escape responsibility for their actions by using books as an excuse. In addition, rating systems pose practical concerns; they are inherently subjective and therefore arbitrary. This makes them even less defensible.
Walter Dean Myers is a highly regarded author of young adult fiction. In Shooter he takes on the subject of school shootings, a topic of concern to many students. It focuses on the effects of violence and how it can be prevented. According to School Library Journal, readers “come to understand the very real issues the school could have addressed assertively and effectively” to prevent the tragedy. Myers skillfully raises other compelling issues facing students, such as racism, bullying, and family problems. Cut by Patricia McCormick addresses an equally important issue for students in its portrayal of a troubled self-destructive teenager who “comes to better understand her behavior and its causes.” (Publishers Weekly)
Confronting difficult themes in literature is part of the public school’s educational
mission. A school district puts its students at a distinct educational disadvantage if it fails to prepare them to address controversial issues which some will eventually confront in real life. These are precisely the issues that students should explore in school, where they can engage in a discussion under the guidance of a responsible adult.
Denying students access to books containing violence would put a lot of valuable
material off-limits. Works of Shakespeare, Faulkner, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison are but a few examples. The Bible contains a great deal of violence, but it would hardly make sense to deny students access to it.
In practice, censorship always invites multiple, sometimes conflicting demands on school officials to exclude other material that someone finds objectionable. To avoid such difficulties, and to provide students with the breadth of information and skills necessary to succeed in a diverse society, educators are well-advised to defend the rights of students to access wide-ranging knowledge. School officials have much wider discretion to include material that has pedagogical value than to exclude it, and their decisions to do so have rarely, if ever, been rejected in the courts. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High
School District (9th Cir. 1998).
We strongly urge you to abandon the effort to rate and restrict books and instead to encourage your students to read challenging material and seek guidance from teachers about how to understand it. You will serve the interests of your students better, even as you respect their right to read, inquire, question, and think for themselves.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression