08 July 2006

School district trying not to "arouse a child's imagination"

Have you followed the silly but dismaying saga of the Vista San Gabriel Elementary School library? It's taking place out in the dry inland exurb of southern California ironically named Lake Los Angeles.

In 2000, one local newspaper, the Antelope Valley Press, quoted Wilsona School District board member Sharon Toyne saying about the Harry Potter series:

"The book's wizards and magic all falls in the line of witchcraft. . . . In our district we are trying to promote character with programs like Character Counts, and I don't see how the book promotes that. I think [the books] could arouse a child's imagination and curiosity of the unknown, of the dark side."
(Not "imagination and curiosity of the unknown"! We must keep children curious and imaginative only about the known, I suppose.)

In 2002, the school district board voted 3-2 to start having religious invocations at the start of its monthly meetings. The Antelope Valley Press reported that the "prayer of entreaty and call for divine presence...would be nonsectarian," according to proponents. But the first prayer offered "invoked Jesus Christ...and asked the Lord to look down upon the people's wickedness and sought forgiveness for banning prayer in public schools."

Sharon Toyne is now president of the district school board and "honorary mayor" of Lake Los Angeles. In February 2006, she led the board in removing 23 titles from a list of 68 recommended for the Vista San Gabriel Elementary School library by a committee of parents and teachers. You can read the full Antelope Valley Daily News report captured at Susan Ohanian's website and GirafNetwork, and reactions at As If!, Read Roger, and the School Library Journal censorship roundup for May. This time Toyne was quoted as saying (obviously extemporaneously):
"There were several of the books on there that board members felt were not appropriate for the children. . . . I think basically because for the last eight or nine years, we've been pushing character education in our school district. There are so many issues changing in the society we are living in. With this ever-changing society, we have to just stick back to the traditional thing of what kids are supposed to be learning."
Another board member and retired teacher, Marlene Olivarez, said that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was dropped because it's fantasy; "We want books to be things that children would be able to relate to in real life." Others dropped titles that fall into the fantasy category included some Clifford the Red Dog books (but only, apparently, bilingual editions), a couple of Artemis Fowl titles, and Disney's Christmas Storybook. I haven't found any report on the 45 titles that were approved.

The Antelope Valley Daily News quoted the school's principal and librarian and a parent expressing surprise and dismay over the board's decision--the first top-down intervention on book choices in at least five years. The Antelope Valley Press editorialized against the decision. (That essay is ironically captured on the blog of a conservative homeschooler who supported the board's restrictions as long as government stays out of education, or something like that. And it seems odd that this homeschooler apparently doesn't care that more students' parents were involved in creating the original list than in cutting it down.)

This week the district school board issued new guidelines, written by Toyne, board member Patricia Greene, and school superintendent Ned McNabb. (Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the news.) The Antelope Valley Daily News reported them like this:
Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humor and "dark content."

"In selected instances, an occasional inappropriate word may be deleted with white-out rather than rejecting the entire book," the policy said.
. . .
Revisions included adding the words "socially appropriate" to one criteria [sic]. It now states books should have a "Fair balanced socially appropriate portrayal of people with regard to race, creed, color, national origin, sex and disability."

The guidelines also now state that all books must comply with a section of state education law, titled the "Hate Violence Prevention Act," which states, "Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, and the meaning of equality and human dignity, including the promotion of harmonious relations, kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals and the principles of a free government."
(Clifford obviously can't show kids anything about "kindness toward domestic pets," could he? These guidelines on values remind me of those Florida just mandated for history.)

Here's another wrinkle in this story that I picked up through Google:
  • In March 2006, the Associated Press reported, the Wilsona School District was "sanctioned under the California's Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program" for failing "to improve student achievement for at least two consecutive years."
  • Such sanctions sometimes make a school board look for new leadership. But in late June, the Wilsona School District board extended McNabb's contract for three years. Obviously, the board liked the approach and priorities he was demonstrating.
  • One week later, McNabb, Toyne, and the board unveiled their new guidelines for school library choices.


Becky said...

Many thanks for the update. I hadn't heard the latest. Will post a link to yours as soon as I can manage it.

Unknown said...

Um, I guess they've never heard of separation of church and state? People like this scare the heck out of me.

By the way, I guess I must be out of the loop, but what exactly is "negative sexuality?"

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect "negative sexuality" is any type of sexual behavior that the school district board disapproves of or feels embarrassed about when they do it themselves.

It's rare for truly harmful sexual behavior to appear in children's books, though. Indeed, any sort of sexual behavior is the exception rather than the rule.

Graham B said...

This would be funny, perhaps, if this was a school district that in all other respects was succeeding. Unfortunately, while they waste time banning books, they are asleep at the wheel on the real nuts and bolts of educating our kids. My very smart daughter now has to repeat a grade because of their failure. As you might imagine, we are now actively considering a private school to get her back on track.