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Posted at 11:26 PM ET, 02/ 4/2010

Fairfax County schools reject book challenges

By Valerie Strauss

When parents challenge books in school curriculums, school officials generally succumb and restrict or remove the material in question. But some stand firm and reject the challenge.

That’s what Fairfax County Public Schools --one of the best systems in the country--has been doing for years. Let's applaud them for refusing to allow a single parent's sensibilities dictate what an entire system reads.

Another Virginia school system, Culpeper County, last month removed removed a versionAnne Frank’s Holocaust diary from its eighth grade curriculum because a parent objected to some of the book's sexually explicit passages.

After being roundly criticized, the superintendent said a commission would be formed to review who should use the definitive version of "Diary of a Young Girl," and ordered the creation of a reading list in middle and high school English courses to ensure that “students are exposed to a wide range of literature and also enable parents to review the list at the beginning of the course.”

Meanwhile over on the West Coast, the Menifee Union School District in California pulled dictionaries off school shelves after a parent complained they contained a definition for “oral sex.” The decision was reversed a few days later.

I asked officials of school districts in the greater Washington area to tell me about book challenges they have received. Several said they had to research my query but Fairfax County quickly came back with an answer.

Here’s what school district spokesman Paul Regnier told me:
--No books have been removed from Fairfax schools since records have been kept, starting in 1983.

--Two, however, were restricted:

“Daughters of Eve” by Lois Duncan was restricted to high schools in 2000

“Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett was restricted to grades 10-12 in 2001.

There were no challenges submitted from 2002-2005.

But there have been some challenges in recent years--all of which were rejected.

*“Of Mice and Men” (instructional supplementary text) by John Steinbeck was challenged in 2006 and a committee that reviewed the challenge recommended not to remove it.
The Fairfax County School Board agreed and denied the appeal.

This book is one of the most challenged classics of the 20th century, usually with complaints about its profanity and for “using God’s name in vain.”

*Plastic Man: On the Lam” (a library book) by Kyle Baker was challenged in 2007 and the committee recommendation was not to remove it from the shelves. The decision was not appealed.

*“TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle, a book in school libraries, was challenged last year by a county resident. The committee recommendation not to remove it was appealed to Superintendent Jack Dale, who supported the committee’s decision. Dale's decision was appealed to the School Board and a panel of four board members upheld his decision. The book remains in school libraries.

Most parent complaints involve language and graphic descriptions of character actions or situations. A few request removal because of extensive violence. Nearly all ask for the book in question to be removed from every school in the system.

Regnier said that eight years ago the school board rewrote the regulation (3009.9) that establishes the procedure for reviewing challenges, and since then few challenges have been made.

A quick review of the regulation reveals why. It’s not easy. Here are some of the steps a person making a complaint must take:

*Complainants may request removal, restriction, or expanded access to materials, either at the student’s school or at all schools. Challenges are limited to one book or other material per challenge.

*The written challenge must identify a violation of Virginia law, FCPS regulations, or FCPS standards regarding educational content and age appropriateness. If the challenge does not provide this information, or if it does not fully and adequately describe substantive issues for review, and the complainant does not correct the deficiencies in a reasonable time period, the principal (or the departmental or interdepartmental committee responsible for the initial review of the challenge) may dismiss the challenge on a summary basis without completing the remaining steps of the review process.

*No complainant may file a new challenge until all of that individual’s previously filed challenges have been decided.

*No complainant may challenge materials on which the School Board has previously ruled or declined to rule until three or more years after the School Board’s decision.

According to the American Library Association, there where 3,736 challenges to books in American libraries from 2001 to 2008.
1,225 challenges were due to “sexually explicit” material;
1,008 challenges were due to “offensive language”;
720 challenges were due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
458 challenges were due to “violence”
269 challenges were due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 103 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 233 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

--1,176 of these challenges (approximately 31 percent) were in classrooms
--37 percent were in school libraries
--24 percent took place in public libraries.

There were fewer than 75 challenges to college classes; and only 36 to academic libraries. There are isolated cases of challenges to materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups and student groups. The majority of challenges were initiated by parents (almost 51 percent), while patrons and administrators followed (10 percent and 8 percent respectively).

You can see if books you like were challenged in recent years by going to this ALA webpage.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 4, 2010; 11:26 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County Public Schools, Literature, Reading  | Tags:  Fairfax County Public Schools, challenging books  
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Any person wanting a book removed from the curriculum (or the library) should first have to pass a test on the book. First, that would mean that most of the people objecting would at least know what was in the book. (There is a classic story of a parent who demanded the removal of "Making it with Mademoiselle"--a book of patterns of clothing featured in the magazine!) Second, answering a few questions about the meaning of certain passages might get some of them thinking beyond the words themselves. Most of the people objecting to the language in "Catcher in the Rye," for example, never read far enough in the book to realize that the language is partly why Caulfield is so disturbed by the world around him--he wants to be the "catcher" who protects innocent children from modern society. (Ironic that he and the parents who object to the book share the same outlook.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 6, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

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