Letter to the Superintendent and Board of Ed in Grand Rapids, MI About the Removal of Athletic Shorts

Superintendent Bert Bleke
1331 Franklin SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49501

Grand Rapids Board of Education
Board of Education Office of the GRPS
1331 Franklin SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49501

Dear Superintendent Bleke and Members of the School Board:

We write to express our concern about the recent removal of Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher from Grand Rapids schools and the suspension and reassignment of the teacher in whose class it was read. It is particularly disturbing that this action was apparently taken in response to one parent’s complaint, with no orderly process to ensure due deliberation and fairness.

Controversy over racially sensitive themes and language is not new. For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a frequent target of similar censorship efforts. What may be less well-known is that African-American authors are disproportionately attacked on these grounds. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Walter Dean Myers, Toni Morrison, and many others have been challenged for their use of racially sensitive language, even though their books represent efforts to expose the reality of racism and the harm it causes.

Crutcher’s intent is no different. Crutcher himself says the book is about "how bigotry flows down the generational river through innocence." To make his point, he says, he used "a sadistic weapon of a word that has been used in this nation’s history like a hammer. You don’t hide a word like that. You expose it. You tell the truth about it."

"African American teachers all over the country? have praised the story, according to Crutcher. As have some parents, whose messages Crutcher has shared with us. One wrote, ?As an African American parent of an 11 year old, I found the story helpful in showing the realities of racism….if we are to be a truly inclusive society, racial dialogue must take place between all of us, and African Americans cannot be the only ones to hold the podium to speak on issues of race." Another self defined "minority" expressed hope that the book would help people "see life different and …walk in our moccasins for a while." By removing Crutcher’s book, you invite complaints against these and other authors whose work confronts the realities of everyday life experienced by immigrant students and students of color.

The task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, their views are not shared by all and they have no right to impose those views on others or demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.

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). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist., 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001).

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. "Objectionable language" is a broad and subjective category, open to a wide range of interpretations, encompassing virtually anything. Even narrowing the definition to language normally deemed "vulgar" or "profane" would disqualify works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Piri Thomas, and Richard Wright, to name but a few.

The most satisfactory way to handle situations in which a parent or student objects to a particular assignment is to offer the opportunity to request an alternative assignment. This addresses the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.

For your information, I am enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that we produced in collaboration with the National Education Association. I hope it will be useful to you and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion. If you would like additional copies, or if we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.


Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship