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School Board gets book control

By PAT JENKINS

Editor

The Federal Way School Board, which already has banned certain movies from classroom use, has been given authority over choices of books for reading in elementary, middle and high school grades.

The new policy, which will be in effect in time for the 2004-05 school year, follows recent complaints by parents about a novel that students in a ninth-grade English class at Todd Beamer High School were assigned to read.

Tom Murphy, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools, has told the school district’s curriculum and insruction officials to give board members, “for their approval, reading lists for all grades.” He also said all middle schools and high schools will send their lists, including an outline of novels, to students’ parents for them to sign and send back at the start of each school year.

Board member Ed Barney said any objections to books are more likely to come from parents than from the board.

“There’s no way” the board can review all the books on the lists, said Barney, the board’s president.

Barney was on the board in 2002 when some parents and students protested the showing of R-rated movies in classrooms as part of lesson material. The board banned such films after community complaints that their scenes of violence, some of it graphic, was objectionable and not suitable for everyone.

Parents of some freshman English students at Beamer aimed similar criticism this month at the choice of a novel for an in-class book review.

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” written by Dai Sijie, contains passages about sexual intercourse in a story set in China during a cultural revolution. One scene describes blood dripping from a virgin after her first sexual encounter.

“That’s a little bit much for 15-year-old children to be reading,” said Lori Bridges, whose son, Brandon, was among students who were instructed by English teacher Vince Hollaran to read the book, discuss it in small groups and draw illustrations of what they read.

Some of the pictures depicted the book’s sex scenes in graphic detail, according to Bridges, who removed her son from the class and complained to school and district administrators.

Diane Turner, a district spokeswoman, said the teacher had to “edit” one of the drawings before it was shown to the class.

Bridges, noting her views are shared by her husband and about 35 other parents, said “Balzac” shouldn’t be banned from school but should be reserved for older students who are more mature about sex.

Murphy, after hearing parents’ complaints at School Board meetings and through a district curriculum review committee, agreed and pulled the book from the list of approved reading for ninth-graders. He also enacted the board’s new authority over books for all grades.

Bridges is happy with the actions taken by Murphy and the board. “The process worked,” she said.

The board is considering adding to the process with a proposed policy that calls for banning classroom reading materials “that are vulgar, lewd, obscene, plainly offensive or sexually explicit.”

Barney said the new policy, which could be voted on by the board in May, is aimed at protecting children from material unsuitable for minors and is modeled after federal and state obscenity laws that shield workers from objectionable material in their workplaces.

“Schools are workplaces for students. They should have the same protection,” he said.

Debate over censorship and the ability to use certain literature in schools could erupt if parents and/or the School Board try banning books, said Mike Comstock, president of the Federal Way Education Association, the local teachers’ union.

“That is a fear. It’s been voiced,” he said.

But he added that parents have always been allowed to request a different book for their children than one that’s assigned. He also noted that the board has overruled district officials and picked different textbooks for school use.

If the new rule for choosing reading books is kept within reason, there may be no objections to it, Comstock said.

Curriculum officials approved “Balzac” for classroom use. Murphy defended the book’s “valuable literary elements” but acknowledged that ninth-graders in general maylack “the maturity and life experiences to correctly interpret the few sensitive scenes” without demeaning the novel’s “intent.”

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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