The Connecticut school superintendent who pulled a popular novel from the freshmen English curriculum has responded to NCAC and other groups who protested his move, claiming that it’s all just a misunderstanding.
In January, one parent, Jean-Pierre Bolat, filed a complaint over Stephen Chbosky’s highly-regarded young adult novel The Perks of Being A Wallflower. The Wallingford Public Schools formed a review committee to evaluate his objection, which was based reportedly on some passages he thought were too sexually explicit.
The review committee decided to retain the book. So Bolat– who happened to have been nominated to the school board right after filing his formal complaint– appealed to superintendent Salvatore Menzo. He agreed with Bolat and decided to pull Perks from the curriculum.
NCAC’s March 20 letter— co-signed by the American Booksellers For Free Expression, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Association of American Publishers, National Council of Teachers of English and the Pen American Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee– recommended retaining Perks, arguing that Bolat “has no enforceable right to have the book removed” and that pulling the book would effectively grant him the power to deny the rights of other parents and students to read Perks in class.
There was immediate reaction in the local community to the controversy: A Freedom of Information Act request was filed with the school district, a petition to reinstate the book was launched and one Wallingford parent, Holly Lafond, made it known that she wanted Perks back in the curriculum:
Appropriateness is not determined by another individual when it comes to my child. I and my husband decide what is appropriate or not….I think that is great if you truly feel that your child should not read a certain book. To assume that others feel the same way and then to go about asking that a book be removed because of the subject material is supercilious and arrogant.
On March 23, Superintendent Menzo wrote a response to NCAC, characterizing the controversy as “a misunderstanding.” There was no decision to “remove students’ access to this book,” he explained, merely “a decision concerning the manner in which the book would be used by the school district.”
Menzo explained that the “primary issue needing to be resolved” was a lack of clarity about whether the book was required reading, since it was not intended as such. The next step, he wrote, was for “a curriculum writing committee composed of teachers and administrators to conduct a more expansive review of the book and the manner in which it is utilized within the current Wallingford curriculum.” That review, slated for the summer, would present its recommendations before the school year begins.
But if Menzo’s letter was meant to clear up some misunderstandings, it fell short. There was no misunderstanding about his action to remove the book; that was plainly what he did. And it was a peculiarly timed decision, given that Perks had already been read this year. So why the rush to strike the book from the curriculum?
His Perks decision came up at the March 23 Wallingford school board meeting, where Menzo argued that this wasn’t about one parent’s objection but some broader problems with the curriculum– at one point he even claimed the book was “written at a fourth- to sixth-grade level,” and thus not challenging enough for high school students. If that is really the issue, then Menzo is saying that the district is doing a poor job of selecting titles for freshman English– which is something very different from the original complaint about the book’s frank talk about sex and drug use.
He went on to explain that the district was merely “pressing a pause button” while this broad review is underway. But his decision to pull the book undoubtedly sends a strong message to the instructors tasked with reviewing the curriculum this summer: The superintendent and at least one member of the board do not want this particular book included on the freshman English curriculum.
In the interest of having a more objective review, the most appropriate first step would be to rescind the removal of The Perks of Being A Wallflower. It would change nothing for the current school year, since the book has already been read. But it would send a clear message to the educators on the district’s upcoming review committee: They are the ones trusted to make appropriate decisions about what books should be read in the district’s classrooms.