Frederick County school board member April Miller wants to make sure public school students are not exposed to graphic and explicit material too early.
So she is questioning whether county teachers should be asking ninth-graders to read the “Song of Solomon,” a controversial novel by Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison that deals with racism and slavery.
Despite receiving high-critical acclaim, the book contains graphic descriptions of sex and violence, which Miller said she believes are inappropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.
“The book itself contains a lot of graphic violence and graphic sexuality,” said Miller, the mother of children aged 13, 11 and 6.
“If this were a movie, they wouldn’t be allowed to see it,” she said Thursday.
Morrison’s novel was one of 15 titles on a list of supplementary reading materials that the county school system staff has suggested for use in high schools next year.
The list was slated for approval at a Frederick County Board of Education meeting on Wednesday.
But Miller, citing her concerns, requested that the item be held for an in-depth discussion at the board’s next meeting on Nov. 14, which members agreed to.
Although the books have already been recommended for approval by administrators, Miller said the board should also consider the titles on the list.
She also raised concerns about explicit content in another book on the list, “Dreaming in Cuban” by Christina Garcia, which the staff has recommended as supplementary reading for seniors.
Miller said she does not necessarily want the school system to ban the books, but believes the board should have a discussion on what is the appropriate age for introducing such titles.
Today, when many families use computer filters and TV blocks to keep out inappropriate content, she said parents would appreciate such a discussion.
“I am not about banning books; I am about empowering parents,” Miller said on Thursday. “If there is educational value that they can show to me, then I would say they should be used in the 12th grade.”
In Miller’s view, the school board should also discuss the process that is used in the selection of supplementary materials and possibly consider ways to alert parents about books with potentially explicit content.
She also wants to find out how schools ensure that a book approved for seniors does not fall in the hands of younger stdents.
But school board member Kathryn “Katie” Groth said they should be able to trust staff to make decisions that are within their area of their expertise.
Morrison’s book may be graphic but that is because it is meant to portray an uglier side of reality, Groth said. Whether parents like it, reality has an ugly side, and sooner or later, they have to discuss that with their children, she said.
“We cannot protect our children from reality,” Groth said. “I hope parents are looking at those books and having conversations with their children.”
The materials on the list went though an extensive, multistep review by staff members before they were put before the board for final approval, according to Jason Anderson, the school system’s director for curriculum, instruction, assesment and innovation.
Some of the books on the list were recommended by teachers, while others were suggested by educational organizations such as the College Board. For example, the Morrison novel was only meant for students who take Advanced Placement classes in literature, he said.
“This book was actually refered to in the actual AP test,” Anderson said Friday.
The school system staff evaluated the books, which were then made available for public review at the C. Burr Artz Library, he said.
While Groth said she would be open to having a discussion on the issue, the board should be able to trust the staff with decisions about school materials.
“These are supplementary materials,” she said. “These are books that have been vetted by our curriculum specialists. I really believe in our curriculum specialists. I don’t think they would ever harm our children.”
But Miller sees things differently.
“Trusting staff can only get you so far,” Miller said. “I think it is part of our due diligence to read everything that we can. Otherwise, why are we there?”