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Two controversial books survive panel’s scrutiny

A school board committee has recommended no restrictions on
A school board committee has recommended no restrictions on "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou and "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

Parents, students and other community members packed the Coeur d’Alene school board meeting Monday to speak about possible restrictions on book titles in school libraries.

Opinions were as varied as the age groups represented. Most of the approximately 50 people supported parents Mary Jo Finney and Debbie Morris in their effort to restrict material they deem inappropriate for students. Some spoke of the need for uplifting reading material in the schools and the audacity of supplying books filled with sexuality and profanity to students when school policy prohibits vulgar language.

“We are opposed to our tax dollars – public tax dollars – being spent on books that contain vulgar language,” Finney said.

Darin Christensen, a 2004 graduate of Lake City High, called the group “a particularly sensitive minority.”

“I take offense to the labeling of these books as pornographic, vulgar or inappropriate,” he said. “… Many of these great authors attempt to speak out against the abuse and degradation of females that is so appalling in modern pornography.”

Several others spoke in agreement with Christensen, calling for the board to keep decisions about reading materials in the hands of parents and for parents to use books that deal with uncomfortable situations to teach their children about the world.

A committee of parents, teachers, school administrators, a board member, a librarian and a student is reviewing five titles Finney filed complaints about this spring. The school board heard at its meeting Monday evening a recommendation from the committee to place no restrictions on “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and “Fallen Angels” by Walter Dean Myers. No decision was made and is not expected at the next meeting, Sept. 4. Three other titles – “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier, “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison – will be considered later this school year.

The group’s decision regarding both book titles was unanimous. Board member Vern Newby asked why no dissenting opinion was supplied and said it calls into question the makeup of a committee “when you have a controversial issue and a unanimous decision.”

“If there is no one to give a dissenting opinion, are we really looking at both sides of the issue?” Newby said.

The five titles are among the most challenged in the nation.

The school board placed a parental permission requirement on “The Chocolate War” for middle school students in 2003. Last summer, the school board added such requirements to “Fallen Angels” in the middle schools and “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by Ivan Doig at the high schools, despite the review committee’s recommendation that no restrictions be placed.

In the last 10 years, Spokane Public Schools has received 17 challenges and withdrawn one publication from school libraries. Dirt Bike Magazine was taken off the shelves in 2002 after a complaint was filed, said Terren Roloff, district spokeswoman. The process is similar to Coeur d’Alene’s except that the review committee makes the decision, which could include withdrawal of the literature from one or more schools or grade levels, withdrawal from student use but not teacher use, or sometimes even withdrawal of the complaint, Roloff said.

None of the five titles being considered in Coeur d’Alene is required reading at either high school, district officials say. Rather, the titles appear on an optional reading list with dozens of others. Some teachers allow students to choose their own titles from the list for a reading assignment. Other teachers will allow students to choose a title off the list if they don’t wish to read the assignment class book.

But parents and students said Monday that not all students know they can choose another title, and teachers don’t tell them.

Coeur d’Alene High senior Erin Anders said she choose “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley in the eighth grade to fulfill an advanced reading requirement. She wasn’t warned of potentially offensive material, and by the time she reached it, it was too late to choose another book, she said.

“It was either continue reading or lower my grade,” she said.

Christensen and others who spoke in opposition to restrictions questioned the motives of the group calling for them, noting that Angelou and Morrison were celebrated black authors. Coeur d’Alene resident Anne McLaughlin said the meeting was advertised on the Internet to anti-racist groups.

“I just want you to know it’s another black mark on Coeur d’Alene’s reputation,” McLaughlin said.

Parent Lori Smith said Finney approached her about the issue in January. She said her material comes “from the point of view that our teachers are out to corrupt our students, and my children’s fourth- and fifth-grade teachers certainly aren’t.”

Those supporting the restrictions said the race of the authors is not the issue. Morris and Finney said they want the district to review its entire reading curriculum, grade by grade, and weed out material they consider vulgar.

“We’re not prejudiced – we want you to look at all of them,” she said.

Board member Christie Wood said she hopes to find a decision that will make everyone happy, but Newby, another board member, acknowledged that a blanket policy on reading materials may be impossible to draft.

Finney and Morris have spoken to community groups about their concerns and submitted a petition with more than 500 signatures to the board. The Mica Flats Grange issued a resolution last week supporting the two, asking that the Coeur d’Alene School District “remove all obscene and pornographic material from all documents and media used for the instruction of students.”

Superintendent Harry Amend said the educators who set school curriculum have already deemed school material as “appropriate. Neither obscene nor pornographic.”

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