The Freedom Writers Diary Removed from English Class at Perry Meridian High School, Indianapolis, IN
Dennis Nichols, Superintendent
Members of the School Board
Metropolitan School District of Perry Township
6548 Orinoco Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46227
February 13, 2008
Dear Superintendent Nichols and Members of the School Board,
We are deeply concerned by reports that the book, The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell, was removed from English 11 classes at Perry Meridian High School. As we understand the situation, no formal complaint process against the book has been initiated, students’ parents had signed permission slips indicating their approval of the book’s use, and the book is freely available in the high school library. If these facts are correct, the decision to remove the book from students while they were in the process of reading it is puzzling, at best.
There is, in our view, no legitimate pedagogical justification for removing the book. The Freedom Writers Diary is the true story of an English teacher who reaches out to “at risk” high school students by encouraging them to write personal and candid diaries. The book has been taught successfully in schools across the country, and has inspired both students and educators alike in its story of the positive effect and transformative power that journal writing can have on students’ lives and education.
Some may object to violence and profanity in the book. However, literature that addresses violent themes challenges students to grapple intellectually and emotionally with events like gang violence, death, physical and emotional abuse, rape, and suicide – events that are all too familiar to some students. The book plainly resonates with students in your own community, as evidenced by the fact that, according to The Indianapolis Star, the majority of the students refused to return The Freedom Writers Diary because they wanted to finish reading it. Moreover, if students were precluded from reading books containing violence and profanity, they would be denied exposure to a vast body of classic literature, ranging from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison.
Even if the teacher failed to follow procedure in assigning the book, that issue is separate and distinct from the decision to remove it. The teacher could have been disciplined without removing the book and doing so merely punished the students who were engrossed in the book. Moreover, the removal of the book sends a chilling message to teachers that they introduce even highly acclaimed secondary material into their classes at their peril.
As a purely practical matter, the decision to remove one book paves the way for demands to remove other material. Acceding in one case sets a precedent that invites others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs, leaving school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment. Since no book is right for every student, this process allows parents to express their concerns if they believe a particular book is not suitable for their child. In this case, parents overwhelming approved the choice of the book.
For your information, we are enclosing copies of a booklet on school censorship that was produced by the National Coalition Against Censorship in collaboration with the National Education Association. We also suggest you refer to "The Student’s Right to Read," a guideline established by the National Council of Teachers of English which speaks to both selection and reconsideration policies and is available online at: http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/cens/107616.htm. We hope these materials will be useful to you and perhaps to teachers and parents involved in this discussion.
We strongly urge you to take appropriate action to insure that this kind of situation does not occur again. This can be most easily accomplished by establishing a clear policy governing book removal, which ensures that materials are not removed in deference to a particular viewpoint and that any removal is justified solely by pedagogical considerations.
If we can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
National Council of Teachers of English