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Book with one swear word stays in school
By MIKE HALLIDAY
The Federal Way School Board rejected a grandmother's appeal of a book with a single epithet in it, but she plans to continue her campaign in the public.
Betty Taylor found the book, "Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry, objectionable after finding the word "damn" in one of the last chapters. She was helping her then-fourth-grade grandson with his homework when she came across the word. Taylor told the School Board that foul language is not allowed in her house and she and her daughter don't approve of swearing.
Taylor's grandson has since been transferred to another school district, but she said she will continue her protest. She is considering asking other school districts if they have looked closely at the books their teachers are assigning.
After hearing testimony at a hearing Monday and at its regular meeting Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 to uphold an earlier decision by a Federal Way Public Schools committee to allow teachers to use the book in the fourth grade. Board members Charles Hoff, Ed Barney, Bob Millen and Tom Madden voted to support the earlier decision. Board member Evelyn Castellar voted against it.
The book, published in 1989, is a Newberry Award-winner about citizens in Denmark hiding Jews from Nazis during World War II. In chapter 16, a character uses "damn" in describing dogs trained to find people by scent.
The school district's Instructional Materials Committee, comprised of parents, educators and the district's chief academic officer, received Taylor's complaint in July. The group voted unanimously to keep the book, noting its literary significance. The committee also recommended teachers notify parents in the future of the potentially offensive language.
Tuesday, the board members who favored keeping the book said parents were most responsible for determining what their children should read.
"Parents are the first line of defense," Barney said, noting they can remove their children from a reading project if they want.
The district allows parents or guardians to forbid their children from viewing a movie, reading a book or participating in a lesson if the parent finds it offensive. The teacher is required to provide an alternative.
Taylor was aware of the option, but when she discovered the offending word, her grandson's class was near the end of last school year and the class assignment. She felt removing him then would hurt his grade.
Taylor said Tuesday she was "drained" and asked the board to make a wise decision.
Castellar cited the district's policies and procedures that prohibited vulgar language written and spoken from students, and the state's law regarding student behavior for making her decision.
"I do what I believe is right, just like Annemarie in the book," Castellar said.
If the district doesn't remove this book because of one swear word, then how many will it take, Castellar asked.
Madden said his daughter read the book years ago, and when she came across the passage, he used it as a moment to teach her about language. He encouraged Taylor to do the same.
But to ask the board to remove the book meant placing Taylor's moral standards on everyone else, Madden said, explaining his vote against her appeal.
Millen and Hoff said the word is appropriate for the situation in the book.
"I find this book is with great merit," Hoff said.
On Wednesday, Taylor said she would continue talking about the book and seeking a larger audience. More people would have been with her Monday night supporting her, but they were working or stuck in traffic, she said.
The board's decision was like being "hit by a ton of bricks," she said. "I feel like this should not be dropped."
Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, firstname.lastname@example.org