Frederick County Public Schools will make some changes to the way they handle controversial reading materials following a school board member’s concern over a book that depicts scenes of sex and violence.
Board member April Miller raised objections last month to Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” being included among supplemental classroom materials for some high school students. While parents can opt out of allowing their children to view such materials in school, Miller said the school system’s current process for parental review is lacking.
School officials said Wednesday they are considering using a system that can alert parents when new and potentially controversial classroom materials are under consideration.
While parents now can only review such materials for a short period in a public library, under the new system parents will be able to do that through the school system’s Find Out First email system, said Jason Anderson, executive director for curriculum, instruction assessment and innovation. Along with each title, the email will include a book summary, description of the course and grade it is intended for and maybe a notice alerting parents about racier content.
“We are already thinking now how we are going to accommodate our community,” he said.
Miller’s concerns about students’ access to age-appropriate content have also prompted school officials to ensure that when a book with more controversial content enters school libraries, it can only be checked out by students who are of appropriate age for that content. While the school system has no way of ensuring that at this time, officials may search for a system that notifies school librarians what age level the book is appropriate for.
“We realize that between 13 and 18 there is a big span in level of maturity,” he said. “We will have to look how other systems are enforcing this.”
The issue came up on Wednesday after the school board voted 4-3 to approve a list of 15 staff-recommended supplementary reading materials and also considered the extent to which the school board should regulate the materials that staff recommends for use by teachers.
School board members Angie Fish, Kathryn “Katie” B. Groth, Brad Young and Jean Smith voted to approve the list, while Miller, James “Jimmy” Reeder, Jr. and Donna Crook voted against it.
The list of supplementary titles was recommended by school system administrators for next year and had been slated for approval by the school board in October. But the decision was put on hold after Miller raised concerns about graphic and potentially inappropriate content in some of the books on the list, including Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel, which had been recommended for use in grades nine through 12, and “Dreaming in Cuban” by Christina Garcia, which had been recommended for high school seniors. Both books deal with highly charged subjects such as racism, slavery, rape and incest. Morrison’s book specifically, uses explicit terms and graphic descriptions of sex and violence and Miller had questioned if those would be appropriate for school discussions.
She had asked the board to delay its decision until it has more time to discuss the titles and the process for adoption of supplementary materials.
Miller raised similar concerns on Wednesday when she questioned school staff about the way they choose supplementary reading materials. Miller said she failed to see the value of books such as the “Song of Solomon” for class discussion and asked if teachers could find more appropriate titles.
“The book gave me nightmares,” said Miller also noting that if students had to read such materials in health class, they would require explicit permission from parents.
Though staff assured Miller that parents can always opt out from discussion of more sensitive materials, she said in many cases parents would have no idea that teachers would discuss such explicit information. When parents see that school officials are recommending materials for class discussions, most of them trust educators to choose texts that do not contain descriptions of sex, allusions of incest and obscene words, Miller said. She said that students come from different situations at home and can sometimes be profoundly affected by sensitive subjects being discussed in class.
“Do [teachers] know what students can handle just because they are in their class?” she asked.
While Miller was pleased to hear that staff will be making the text selection process more parent-friendly and will tighten the safeguards protecting students from borrowing inappropriate texts from school libraries, she said that was just a small step in the right direction.
Staff members, however, defended the books on the recommended list and said each one of them was selected for a specific reason. They said Morrison’s novel for example, was intended for students in Advanced Placement literature classes and had been referenced on AP tests.
Mike Bunitsky, secondary curriculum specialist for social studies, said the school system has to walk a fine line in choosing appropriate materials that are also engaging for students and meet college entrance requirements. He also noted that teachers are prepared with alternate activities and texts.
Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban agreed. She said Miller has raised important concerns about parent input and access to library books, which the school system is working to accommodate. But she also said she is opposed to limiting access to literature that can enrich students’ learning experiences and foster a love of reading.
“We always have the option for parents to say: ‘This is not for my child,’” she said.
Other school board members expressed support for the idea of safeguarding library access for students. But they also expressed support for staff’s position on the list of proposed books. Smith noted that reading a book on a more sensitive subject can prompt a parent to have a meaningful discussion on an important real-life subject.
Fish, who teaches in Montgomery County, agreed with Bunitsky.
“There is incest in mythology,” she said. “I can’t imagine that a teacher would be harping on the passages that are uncomfortable for discussion.”
Reeder, however, had more reservations. The school system he said, takes so many precautions to keep students safe physically, it would make sense to protect them emotionally as well.
“Are we keeping their minds as safe as possible too?” he asked.