Monday, October 19, 2015

School Book Selection, Challenges, and Censorship

Letter: Regarding Reading Book Selection in Schools

October 16, 2015 

Regarding the issue of book “censorship” in the public school, key points should be considered that may not be heard from other sources.

When a book is challenged, reference should be made to the school’s book selection policy. Even the American Library Association’s creator of “Banned Books Week” said, “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

The US Supreme Court allows for the removal of “pervasively vulgar” books right away. Board of Education v. Pico does not allow the removal of books for the ideas they contain, but being pervasively vulgar is not an idea and such books may be removed immediately. There’s no need for a book reconsideration process to complete before removing such a book.

Further, book rating services are flawed for leaving out information about the potential for pervasive vulgarity. Common Sense Media does produce such a list but the American Library Association ordered all librarians to stop linking to that particular list. Besides, it’s a double standard to depend on third party ratings while at the same time ignoring what parents and school administrators are saying.

Know that multiple Harris Polls show the vast majority oppose sexually explicit books in public schools. The person who complains is often singled out as a “censor” when the reality is the vast majority agree with the “censor.” Besides, the issue is neither left nor right; all sides oppose sexually inappropriate materials in public schools.

Lastly, giving students an alternate book to read exposes the student and his family to bullying and the school to not providing a fair and equal education as required by law.

I hope this helps people make informed decisions since there are national organizations attempting to misinform people. Anyone may contact me should they wish to learn more.

Dan Kleinman,

Library Watchdog


Chatham, NJ

The Two River Times in the
Red Bank Public Library;
my Letter to the Editor

The above information on school book selection, challenges, and censorship in a nutshell was published in The Two River Times.  Below is much more detail in the full letter I wrote to a New Jersey school superintendent and others:

11 October 2015

Superintendent Dr. Peter Righi 
Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School 
74 Ridge Road 
Rumson, NJ 07760 
Via Electronic Communication 

Dear Dr. Righi and Members of the Board of Education,

I am writing to support your efforts regarding the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional (RFH) High School’s English curriculum vis-à-vis Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden and Bernard MacLaverty’s novel Cal.

When a public school receives a challenge to reading material, there are several things to consider:

1)  The school’s own existing book selection policy should be examined to determine whether or not the book violates that policy.  If so, the book may be removed forthwith.  

Judith Krug, the American Library Association’s creator of Banned Books Week and the Freedom to Read Foundation, was once asked, “Are there ever instances when you think it's appropriate for a school to ban a book?”  She replied, “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library.  In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials.  If it doesn't fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”  “Marking 25 Years of Banned Books Week: An Interview with Judith Krug

2)  The means by which a school’s book selection policy is applied could be flawed in that book rating services do not account for the potential for sexually inappropriate content and in a case where one does, it was removed from a prominent web site of the American Library Association.  Here is a document from the American Library Association censoring Common Sense Media book ratings for containing information on the potential for sexual inappropriateness and ordering such ratings no longer be used by librarians: 

Book rating services that are allowed do not provide the very information Common Sense Media was cut for providing, and at least one school recognized this flaw and acted accordingly by removing a book despite its having initially been believed to have met the school’s book selection policy based on book rating services: “School Excoriates Book Reviews that Fail to Disclose ‘Graphic Sexual Details’ in Books for Children; Lush by Natasha Friend is ‘Wildly Inappropriate’ for Certain Children

3)  The 1982 United States Supreme Court case of Board of Education v. Pico essentially allows for the immediate removal of “pervasively vulgar” books from public schools:  That case justified the successful removal of a pervasively vulgar school book from the Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mt. Holly, NJ, despite its having been vigorously defended by the library media specialist: “School Media Specialist Passes Sexual Content Review to Students; Dee Venuto Says It Is Discrimination to Keep Children From Material Including Lengthy, Vivid Descriptions of a Ménage a Trois

Notably, the library media specialist who could not bring herself to read sexually exploitive material so she let her students do that and who decried “censorship” after the school removed a pervasively vulgar book, was given an award “for fighting against censorship” by the National Coalition Against Censorship [NCAC]:

4)  Books may be removed immediately.  There’s no need to leave the books in place until a final decision is made, as organizations like the American Library Association claim.  Let alone the US Supreme Court case that allows for immediately removal, there’s simple common sense.  When a third grader read about squirting sperm in a school book, the school principal and the school librarian removed it immediately while a former head of the state’s library association claimed the book should have been left available to children until a final decision was made: “School Removes Squirting Sperm Book After 8-Year-Old Complains To Her Mother

5)  Two Harris Polls spaced four years apart have twice shown the vast majority of people do not want sexually explicit materials in public schools: “Most Oppose Explicit Books in Public Schools Says Harris Poll  

It is important to note this as school boards are elected by the public, not by the few national “censorship” organizations that like to claim no one supports removing materials from schools.  If schools remove sexually inappropriate books, the public supports that, let alone the US Supreme Court and common sense.

It is also important to note this as parents who raise book challenges are immediately labelled as “censors” and made to look like they are in a tiny majority of, as NCAC writes, “several parents or members of the community” when in reality most people oppose such material.  See "The Parent Trap: ALA Uses Banned Books Week to Ridicule Patrons Complying with ALA Materials Reconsideration Policies":

NCAC even singles out a single parent in its letter to you, discussed below: “a parent or group of parents [who] might find [material] ’inappropriate.’”  The parents who speak up are simply the ones not intimidated by organizations including those in the NCAC letter.  The reality is most people oppose sexually explicit materials in public schools, and the Harris Polls prove it.

7)  Lastly, the issue is neither a left nor right issue.  People on all sides oppose sexually inappropriate materials in public schools.  Consider, for example, "Young Adult Fiction: Wild Things," by Naomi Wolf, The New York Times, 12 March 2006:  When NCAC raises the issue of “‘parents [having] genuine moral disagreements,’” that is a nod to the oft-heard claim that some “right-wing nut” is trying to force his religious views on a school.  In reality, everyone opposes sexually inappropriate material in public schools.

Turning now to the letter dated October 9 from “the National Coalition Against Censorship—along with the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Teachers of English, and PEN American Center,” collectively NCAC.  See: “Petition Demands Only ‘Age Appropriate’ Books in NJ High School,” by NCAC, 9 October 2015

“Any decision the Board makes should be based on the books’ pedagogical and literary merit, and not be a simple concession to the views of several parents or members of the community.”  So says the NCAC.

Any decision the Board makes should be based on a number of factors including those I listed above, not just merit.  That a book wins awards does not trump other considerations.  Books that are pervasively vulgar and have been removed from some schools had already earned awards, for example.  Yet the awarded books were removed for being pervasively vulgar.  That a book may have awards is nice but not determinative of whether it is or is not appropriate in a school setting given a school’s book selection policy, and so on.  

If awards and other merit are promoted as the reason to maintain a book and other means for book selection are overlooked or ignored, that is a sign someone is being misleading and cannot make a substantive argument.  Indeed NCAC is advising you of all of the awards and other merit involved in the books in this matter.  More than half of its letter is devoted just to that.  Did the US Supreme Court rule that pervasively vulgar books may be removed from public schools unless they won awards and were otherwise deemed meritable?  Did Judith Krug say “get it out of there unless it won awards”?

Look at the next part of the sentence, namely, “and not be a simple concession to the views of several parents or members of the community.”  This is parent shaming.  Shame on them for having views and for speaking out about them.  For the NCAC, defending censorship only goes so far.

It is also misleading.  Parents are allowed to speak up about school policies and practices.  Schools have a means for addressing those concerns.  If a school acts on those concerns and decides to remove a pervasively vulgar book, the school removed the book, not the parents.  No one is conceding to the parents and removing the book.  Rather, it is the school making that decision as it should.  It is misleading for NCAC to imply that if you remove the book, it will have been “a simple concession to the views of several parents.”  

Most misleading about that NCAC sentence is that it demonstrates both 1) you are not to be swayed by “several parents or members of the community” while 2) you should be swayed by people outside the community who adjudge “pedagogical and literary merit.”  So parents, don’t listen to them, but award granters and book reviewers that are not censored, definitely listen to them.  And NCAC did this all in a single sentence.

“It is our understanding that books go through a rigorous review at RFH before they are included in the curriculum, with literary and artistic merit being a key consideration.”  NCAC's understanding, of course.

A “rigorous review” “with literary and artistic merit being a key consideration” means little given book reviews are known to fail to address issues of the potential for inappropriateness for school children and, given where ratings do provide such information, they are censored and blacklisted so parents and teachers do not see them, both as I described and sourced above.  

Besides, past reviews mean nothing in light of the need for a current reconsideration.  The implication is made that since a book was accepted into the school in the past, it can no longer be reconsidered for removal.  Then why are there materials reconsideration policies in the first place if nothing can ever be reconsidered?  Past “rigorous reviews” are nice but not determinative.  The same goes for books having already been on school reading lists.  And schools do remove pervasively vulgar books that were “rigorously reviewed” in the past, so claiming there’s been a “rigorous review” or a presence on a reading list is not determinative in the slightest.

More than half of the NCAC’s letter is devoted to talking about how others deem the books to be worthy while “the subjective demands of members of the community” are to be ignored.  Even an implied comparison is made between a parent’s request for reconsideration and censorship by the “government of General Augusto Pinochet.”  It borders on the use of Godwin’s Law to advance NCAC’s hyperbolic argument:  As famed librarian Jessamyn West said, "the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children.  while i think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it's totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all":

Finally, NCAC addresses only two paragraphs to substantive issues relating to the legality of book removals from public schools.  Board of Education v. Pico is even cited, but, extremely misleadingly, the part about removing pervasively vulgar books is omitted.  How can NCAC be “dedicated” to “the integrity of the public education system” when it comes to you with advice and that advice excludes the very key other schools, such as NJ's RVRHS, have used to successfully remove other pervasively vulgar books?  Where’s the “integrity” in that?

“‘[S]chool officials are bound by a constitutional duty not to suppress unpopular, controversial, or even “objectionable” ideas,’” quotes NCAC.

That court quote is correct but pervasively vulgarity is not an “idea.” School children may and should be exposed to many different “ideas” but pervasive vulgarity is not an “idea” and the US Supreme Court allows such books to be removed forthwith.  NCAC is attempting to equate “ideas” with pervasive vulgarity.  

Indeed, NCAC has openly called for an end to the prohibition against pornography in public libraries: "There is no justification for the wholesale exclusion of books with sexually explicit content, whether called 'erotica' or 'pornography’”:  Notice how NCAC does this in another letter substantially similar to the one it sent you, also cosigned by a number of other organizations.

Look at the Judith Platt signature in both letters.  It is the exact same signature.  Identical.  NCAC basically sends out form letters, reshaped for individual communities, all intended to mislead communities into doing what NCAC wants if it only had the power to impose its way.  But it doesn’t have that power so it needs to mislead people into thinking for themselves that judicial decisions, common sense, and existing book selection policy should all be ignored.

I said above it was misleading for NCAC to imply that if you remove the book, it will have been “a simple concession to the views of several parents.”  The NCAC letter cites a case saying “no parent has the right ‘to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught.’”  That is correct but that is not the issue when a parent brings a concern to the school and the school acts on that concern; it is not the parent acting.  NCAC cites another case to say schools should not “cater” to parents.  True, but again, a school making a decision based on a school policy is not “catering” to a parent.  If a school bends or changes policy to accommodate a parent, that might be “catering,” but that is not the case in this RFH matter.  So again NCAC is being misleading, this time by addressing nonexistent issues and ignoring real ones.

So the entire NCAC letter is misleading for the reasons stated above and never addresses substantive issues.  Nowhere does it discuss useful information to help you make a decision.  And it omits material it knows would guide you to make the right decision, instead of the one it wants you to make.

The NCAC letter then implies parents have absolutely no say in what happens in public schools, and, in the event you are not swayed by NCAC, you must still make the sexually inappropriate material available to everyone but the few who complain:  “Parents, of course, have a right to stay informed of what material is being taught; if they have deep objections to a work their child has been assigned, the school has the option of offering an alternate assignment if that is pedagogically feasible.”

So parents may be told of what sexually inappropriate material has been assigned in public school but may do little else, according to NCAC.  In the event a parent does have "deep objections" and persuades a school that a book does not meet the school’s book selection policy, only that parent’s child gets a different book and the other children continue to read the original one, according to the NCAC.

In schools that assign different books for children whose parents challenge a book, 1) the student is ostracized by the students and sometimes teachers, 2) the student is left out of the teaching revolved around the challenged book, 3) the school may be violating state law that requires a fair and equal education.  

One New Jersey example would be the West Essex Regional School District regarding "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Díaz.  If I recall correctly, when the class discussed the Díaz book, the boy was told to sit in the back corner facing the wall reading the book his mother allowed.  Even his coach laughed at him.  The mother was told she was "hovering and overprotecting my son," as well as "squashing his sexual being."  The boy even spoke at a board of education meeting regarding the book choice, and at that meeting the head of the English Department “was rolling her eyes at him and implied that I wrote his speech.”  Exactly where is the fair and equal education in that?  

I visited this school. There were anti-bullying signs throughout the school.  But it is just for show.  Such bullying polices obviously do not apply to students and teachers and department heads bullying children who do not want to read sexually inappropriate material assigned by the school.  And NCAC is right there encouraged you to set up your own students for bullying.

A New York example left a girl in tears after hearing how her parents were mocked by the English teacher and students were then made to write letters to oppose her parents: "School Bullies Girl to Promote Political Push for Perks By Displaying In Class Video of Girl's Parents; School Board Misleads Parents Opposing School Book So Only Book Supporters Attend Public Meeting; Media Touts Total Victory And Leaves Out Bullying and Political Trickery; Guest Writer Aldo DeVivo Speaks Out":  When I wrote to that school about the bullying, I received an autoresponse that touted the school's anti-bullying policy. 

So no, it is not acceptable to assign a different book to read for the few whose parents are willing to speak up despite the bullying.  NCAC’s fallback position is the NCAC’s position, not the correct or legal one.  Assigning a different book is the politically expedient thing to do but it is not the right thing to do, it exposes children and their families to bullying, and it violates the laws requiring a fair and equal education and opposing bullying.

By contrast and as an example of accurate information NCAC could have provided but did not, I provided you with useful information and reliable sources.  In summary:
  1. The American Library Association allows for the removal of school books that do not meet school book selection policy.  Notice the American Library Association did not sign the NCAC letter compared with past NCAC letters.  
  2. Book rating services are flawed; one is intentionally hidden since it rates sexual inappropriateness, the very rating the others lack.  
  3. The US Supreme Court allows for the removal of “pervasively vulgar” books forthwith.  
  4. Books may be removed immediately without waiting for a book reconsideration process to complete. 
  5. Multiple Harris Polls show the vast majority oppose sexually explicit books in public schools.  
  6. School curriculum is set by the school, not by individual teachers.  
  7. The issue is neither left nor right; all sides oppose sexually inappropriate materials in public schools.
I am hoping this information helps you make a fully informed decision on your own, not a selectively informed and misinformed one the NCAC wants you to make.  Your students depend on your decision.  Do it right.


Dan Kleinman, Library Watchdog
641 Shunpike Rd #123
Chatham, NJ 07921

BCC:  RFH Principal, Mayor and Council of Fair Haven and Rumson, and media

URL of this page:

On Twitter:  
@ALALibrary @NCACensorship @OIF @RFHRegHS @TwoRiverTimes

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments of a personal nature, trolling, and linkspam may be removed.