By Karen Jo Gounaud, Family Friendly Libraries
May 1998 – Battles between parents and public schools over book choices for libraries and classrooms are becoming more heated and wide spread. Family Friendly Libraries gets calls nationwide from concerned parents and educational professionals looking for answers. Titles vary, but the nature of the concerns is nearly always the same: Profanity, and sexually explicit content, especially connected to violent or deviant behavior, such as rape and incest. These complaints arise when educators exempt themselves from established school behavior standards while selecting literature for curriculums and classrooms.
Here are some talking points for tackling the problems of crude curricula. In selecting materials for the school library and classroom, schools should:
1. Uphold the Constitution
The U.S. Supreme Court indicated in Board of Education v. Pico that a school board could remove a book because it was “pervasively vulgar” or because it was “educationally unsuitable.”
2. Support school behavior codes
Most schools have reasonable language and behavior rules such as “no student shall possess…indecent (vulgar, obscene, profane, offensive) materials.” Requiring students to read aloud in the classroom and to study for credit what they are forbidden to say and suggest in the halls undermines discipline and parental trust. School library and classroom materials should be consistent with those behavior codes.
3. Support federal anti-harassment codes
Title VII of the Federal code is intended to guarantee an environment free of sexual discrimination, hostility and harassment.Choosing sexually explicit and profanity-laced materials for the mandatory classroom contradicts that effort.
4. Support racial harmony
“Minority representation in literature” is often the excuse school officials give for choosing some of the most offensive books. Legitimate minority racial and ethnic groups should be encouraged to help schools identify literature that truly represents their culture and history without resorting to lewd depictions, vulgarities and epithets.
5. Honor the contract between home and school
Using materials with profane and obscene words in the classroom, thus deviating from previously established school policy, places the school in the position of breaking their own contract (the behavior code). Even if the school is not criminally liable (because of loopholes in the state “harmful to minors” code), all those responsible for corrupting children’s minds or exposing them to a sexually hostile environment may be held accountable in civil court and on election day.
6. Maintain high educational standards
Choosing contemporary crude materials over more decorous, time-tested, classic literature often results in educational inferiority. With such a wide range and number of high quality literary works available to America’s education systems, why not select those with the most age-appropriate vocabulary and language?
7. Provide fair re-evaluation procedures
Any just review procedure should involve community members who are not school employees or pupils with potential conflict of interest situations. The School Board should have the final word, and the professional staff should have ample opportunity to defend their original decisions, but Board members should give priority to recommendations from a fair and representative adult citizen advisory group.
8. Respect parental input The First Amendment must run to and from school. To automatically dismiss parental complaints or criticisms about books as “censorship” is to arrogantly assume that the school is always right. Good education is not a matter of what’s popular or politically correct but what is best. Even one lone parent who holds the school accountable to recorded policies and promised standards should be honored and respected. A school system that acknowledges and respects the parents’ ultimate authority is one in which students are more likely to thrive and progress.
9. Maintain civility in the debate
Characterizing parental curriculum removal or replacement efforts as “trying to impose their values on everyone else’s children” is a grossly unfair and intentionally inflammatory misrepresentation that ignores the basic validity of such concerns.
10. Guard against religious bigotry
When complaining parents are derided because they also happen to be religious, that shameful bigotry should concern all citizens. An education community must exemplify respect, not undermine it. Judeo-Christian beliefs in particular are an integral part of our history, founding documents and government system. Listening to the reasonable concerns of people whose opinions happen to be guided by strong religious beliefs is not the same as an unconstitutional imposition of religion on the public school system. Protecting the minds of children and youth from unnecessary exposure to profanity and lewd descriptions of graphic sex and sexual violence should transcend religious debates and be central to any responsible educational environment.
Choosing profanity-free and obscenity-free school curriculum materials should be a “given” for school officials. The problem is serious, extensive and growing. Clearly it’s time to act effectively and decisively to reclaim this educational territory temporarily lost in the modern culture wars. All family-friendly citizens and organizations must work together more diligently to once again make decency a valued condition in the classroom.