Hempfield Area Continues Debate Over Changing Contested Book Review Program

A policy relating to the evaluation of course materials may soon be changed even though members of the Hempfield area school board remain divided on the best way to proceed.

The months-long conversation, which began in March when a small group of parents challenged two books available to high school students, continued this week after the district’s policy committee determined it needed additional board input before making any changes.

After Monday’s discussion, members of the policy committee seemed ready to discuss further the possibility of tweaking the composition of a committee that reviews disputed documents and possibly adding an appeals process. A meeting of the political committee scheduled for Wednesday has been canceled. A new date has not yet been set.

“It’s important for us to know (you think) because we’re operating in the dark if we don’t know what the board would like to see us develop,” said school principal Jeanne Smith.

In recent months, some parents have questioned George M. Johnson’s “Not All Boys Are Blue,” which chronicles Johnson’s journey as a queer black boy. Parents also interviewed Frederick Joseph’s “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person,” which reflects the author’s experiences with racism.

A formal complaint was filed against the books, both of which went through the review process set out in the policy.

This means that a committee – consisting of the school librarian, the head of the library department, a teacher selected based on the content of the book, a parent, a student, the complainant, the assistant superintendent and the superintendent – reads the books, then encounters and examines each text using a series of questions drawn from the policy.

It was ultimately determined that the books could remain available to students.

Despite this determination, some parents have continued to push for change while suggesting that these books are not suitable for students.

After hearing the opinions of several parents and alumni, the board members gave their thoughts on the situation and whether they felt any changes were needed.

“I found this material offensive and it had nothing to do with a black person, it had nothing to do with straight sex, gay sex, just sexually explicit material that our children have (access to)” , said the school principal. Jennifer Bretz. “I found it offensive. I am appalled by the judgment of people who have decided that material should be accessible at our facility. … Personally, I would like to see the policy changed.

Bretz suggested several changes, including revising the membership of the committee to include principals and community members not employed by the district, revising the process for selecting potentially controversial materials, revising the policy all 24 months and the addition of an appeal process, among other things.

“We can recalibrate existing policy to ensure thoughtful and appropriate outcomes in every situation,” Bretz said.

Board chairman Tony Bompiani suggested that changing the composition of the committee could make the process fairer.

“I hear people talking about the book and saying that you are limiting my children’s access to this book,” Bompiani said. “Well, you allow other children whose parents don’t want them to access this book to access the book. So both sides are arguing about it and there is a way to find common ground.

School principal Paul Ward said he had no immediate solution to the problem, but suggested looking at how library books are chosen.

For school principal Mike Alfery, it comes down to common sense.

“If you are a librarian and you see a book that might be controversial and you review that book and there is nudity and what could be construed as nudity and pornography, you need to stop and say, “Wait a minute, this might cause me some trouble,” Alfery said.

Others have taken a different position.

School principal Vince DeAugustine said he was comfortable with the policy and it was valid, and suggested there were bigger issues the board should focus on.

Similarly, director Diane Ciabattoni was reluctant to make changes that would lead to a book being banned.

“I understand that parents want to make sure they teach their kids what their ethics are and what they believe,” Ciabattoni said. “I’d like to dig deeper into the committee, but I’m very concerned about getting rid of the books just because maybe I don’t like them or maybe I don’t agree with them.”

Community contribution

At Monday’s meeting, 15 parents and alumni spoke on the matter, expressing opinions on both sides of the argument.

Several parents called “Not all boys are blue” sexually explicit and likened a passage from the book to pornography.

“Our morals have been demolished beyond recognition,” Heather Abraham said. “These books should not have a foothold in our children’s lives. As parents, we don’t want these books accessible to our children. When you open the door to what is happening in the world today, you open the door to perversion.

Cheryl Ammons took a similar approach. She suggested the book takes away parental rights over when and how to introduce sexual orientation and gender identity to children.

“We send our children to school to receive education, not indoctrination,” Ammons said.

High school librarian Nichole Owens, who spoke during public comments, suggested the book had bigger themes beyond a passage that parents focused on.

“Although Johnson wrote about these difficult experiences, he is determined that they do not define him, nor does he allow them to define his book,” Owens said. “He is more than his trauma and in fact the trauma is not the main theme of this book. ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ is also about the resilience of the spirit, the importance of education, the strength that comes from good friendships and above all the unyielding power of a supportive family.

Several parents who spoke out against the policy changes stressed the importance of having books that all children can relate to and see themselves in.

Shanya Coshey, a graduate of Hempfield this year, said books like Johnson’s can be a lifeline for current students and can show readers who they can be.

“They guide us,” Coshey said. “They let it be known that it was good to be different. When we withdraw this book, we are telling our students that you cannot be different, you cannot be the way you are. You take away their identity, you take away their growth as a person, and we’re doing all of this because it’s different. It’s a story that you don’t often see, yes, and yes, it deals with more difficult and more graphic content. But this content is not beyond the level that we as students are able to read.

Megan Tomasic is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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