Monday, January 24, 2011

Breaking News: Belleville School Board Votes Unanimously to Keep Challenged Book in English Curriculum

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin applauds the Belleville School District in their unanimous decision to keep a challenged book in the ninth grade English curriculum. Tonight the school board demonstrated patience and courage to recognize the importance of both due process and the need for relevant and contemporary literature in the classroom. Over 200 community members attended the hearing: the majority wore green "Keep the Book" stickers in a show of support.

“It was inspiring to watch the Belleville community speak out against the book challenge and in support of their teachers,” said Community Advocate Stacy Harbaugh. “In the end, board members all agreed that peer-reviewed, modern selections of fiction are appropriate for their ninth graders and that options are available for parents who want alternatives for their children to read. We’re glad the board did the right thing to keep the book.”

The book in question was “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” by Chris Crutcher, a work of young adult fiction that depicts teens who face contemporary problems including bullying. Tonight, the Belleville School District’s Board of Education heard testimonies from a parent who challenged the book’s place in the English curriculum on the basis of her religious beliefs and from district superintendent who defended the selection of the book by addressing the claims made by the book challenger. Students spoke in favor of the book and parents asked the board to keep the book as a part of their children’s education.

“The parents and the students who stood by their teachers deserve applause and recognition too” added Harbaugh. “During this fall semester when the book was being challenged, the book was being closely read, parents were talking to their children about their education, and students were learning about intellectual freedom. What a great learning experience for all.”

The ACLU works to defend First Amendment principles, such as supporting students and parents who want to defend an inclusive public school curriculum: authors have the right to free expression in what they write and all of us share the right to read books. We support Belleville Schools in keeping “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” because all of their students should have an education that gives them the tools for critical thinking, including works of contemporary literature that is relevant and compelling to teens.

David Douglas from News 3 was on hand to cover the story. Read more on the Channel 3000 website or check out Douglas' live tweets from the event @News3David.

Read more about the ACLU’s observation of Banned Books Week from 2011.

Other comments from the hearing
Many people thanked the English teacher for her grace in the line of fire and many thanked the parent who challenged the book for prompting the rigorous public discussion. Student Dylan Paris said that the book allowed him and his classmates to discuss real-life issues in the safety of a classroom. Parent Bob Smith said that when he asked his son what he thought of the possibility of a book removal he said, "are they crazy? This was the first book I read that meant anything to me." Student Patrick Blair said that the characters in the book taught him to be humble because his daily experiences in Belleville are miniscule compared to what other teens face.

Other letters of support came in from Belleville high school graduates, students in college who had read the book at some point in the past eight and a half years that it had been taught, and other teachers who stood in solidarity with the staff. Mike O'Connor, Associate Principal for the Oconomowoc high school (speaking for himself and not on behalf of the school) wrote a letter in support of English teacher Peg Kruse. He said that upon hearing that there was a misguided attack on the curriculum, he was prompted to read the book for himself to form his own opinion. The book represented the actual and sensitive issues students face in high school and the author allows readers to draw their own conclusions. O'Connor said the book was compelling reading and that Kruse has a strong sense of selecting books that stir the soul.

Community member Sandy Walejko put it best by saying that "it was a great night for freedom. The decision is important and the board members are good people. Concerned parents have good intentions. This is not about good vs. evil: this is an example of the free speech that our country stands for and I'm glad good citizens are engaged in an open debate."

The last word of the night was from the lively and irreverent student Lexi who was enthusiastic about reading the book for her English class. Said Lexi, "for a kid to actually get into a book? That's the stuff!"