Committee to consider book ban to meet Tuesday in PHS library

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Meeting Monday, Sept. 12 were Perry Community School District Board of Directors, from left, Kenia Alarcon. Vice President Jim Lutmer, President Linda Andorf, Secretary Kent Bultman and Eddie Diaz.

The first meeting of the Reconsideration of Instructional Materials Committee, formed last week in order to consider a complaint lodged against a book used in Perry High School English classes, will be held Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 4:15 p.m. in the Brady Library at Perry High School.

The initial meeting will be logistical, according to the agenda, with committee members asked to familiarize themselves with the roles and responsibilities of the Reconsideration of Instructional Materials Committee and select a committee chairperson and secretary.

Copies of the completed Reconsideration Request Form, filed by the parent challenging the instructional materials, will be available at the meeting, according to Perry Community School District Superintendent Clark Wicks.

All the policies governing the PCSD’s selection of instructional materials, such as textbooks and movies, are listed in the 600 series of the Perry School Board policies.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the committee will review the following board policies:

  • 600 Goals and Objectives of the Education Program,
  • 605.1 Instructional Materials Selection,
  • 605.1R1 Selection of Instructional Materials,
  • 605.3E1 Instructions to the Reconsideration Committee,
  • 605.3E2 Reconsideration of Instructional Materials,
  • 605.3R1 Reconsideration of Instructional Materials Regulation

According to district policy 605.1, the school board has “sole discretion” in choosing instructional materials, but the board’s “authority is delegated to licensed employees,”  whose choices are reported to the board by the superintendent.

“While selection of materials may involve many people, including principals, teacher-librarian, students, parents and community members, the responsibility for coordinating the selection of most instructional materials and making the recommendation for the purchase rests with licensed employees,” according to policy 605.1R1.

In general, the “sole criterion” used in choosing books for classes “is the appropriateness of the material for its intended educational use,” according to policy 605.3R1. The selection of instructional materials is “done according to established and accepted standards for determining the relevance and value of materials in a given context,” according to policy 605.1R1.

The chosen classroom materials are intended to support the “stated objectives and goals of the school district.” Among the district’s goals is the goal to “provide materials to motivate students to examine their own attitudes and behaviors and to comprehend their own duties and responsibilities as citizens in a pluralistic democracy,” according to policy 605.1R1.

Although Wicks declined to disclose any titles of instructional materials that have been challenged, a school district figure familiar with the matter said the challenged materials are believed to include a novel entitled “The Hate U Give.” According to Wikipedia:

“The Hate U Give” is a 2017 young adult novel by Angie Thomas. It is Thomas’s debut novel, expanded from a short story she wrote in college in reaction to the police shooting of Oscar Grant. The book is narrated by Starr Carter, a 16-year-old African-American girl from a poor neighborhood who attends an elite private school in a predominantly white, affluent part of the city. Starr becomes entangled in a national news story after she witnesses a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend, Khalil. She speaks up about the shooting in increasingly public ways, and social tensions culminate in a riot after a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer for the shooting.

“The Hate U Give” was published on Feb. 28, 2017, by HarperCollins imprint Balzer + Bray, which had won a bidding war for the rights to the novel. The book was a commercial success, debuting at number one on The New York Times young adult best-seller list, where it remained for 50 weeks. It won several awards and received critical praise for Thomas’s writing and timely subject matter. In writing the novel, Thomas attempted to expand readers’ understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as difficulties faced by black Americans who employ code switching. These themes, as well as the vulgar language, attracted some controversy and caused the book to be one of the most challenged books of 2017, 2018 and 2020, according to the American Library Association.

The grounds of the Perry parent’s complaint about the book are not yet known, but an Iowa law that took effect in July bans certain “concepts” from classroom instruction and from mandatory diversity training for state and local government employees, such as the concept that America is systemically racist or sexist. The Iowa law largely borrows from a September 2020 executive order that issued from the Trump White House.

Iowa House File 802 says that teachers and instructional materials must “not teach, advocate, encourage, promote, or act upon stereotyping, scapegoating, or prejudice toward others on the basis of demographic group membership or identity.”

In the language of the bill, the phrase “race or sex scapegoating” means “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.”

According to the law:

“Specific defined concepts” includes all of the following:
  (1) That one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
  (2) That the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.
  (3) That an individual, solely because of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  (4) That an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race or sex.
  (5) That members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex.
  (6) That an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.
  (7) That an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
  (8) That any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.
  (9) That meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.
  (10) Any other form of race or sex scapegoating or any other form of race or sex stereotyping.

The Iowa law says it does not “prohibit the use of curriculum that teaches the topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation or racial discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination.”

Similarly, the law says it does not aim to “prevent a school district from promoting racial, cultural, ethnic, intellectual, or academic diversity or inclusiveness, provided such efforts are consistent with” other parts of Iowa law.

The PCSD policies offer a number of directions to the members of the Reconsideration of Instructional Materials Committee. Policy 605.3E1 notes that “any member of the school district community may formally challenge instructional materials used in the district’s education program. This policy allows those persons in the school and the community who are not directly involved in the selection of materials to make their own opinions known. The task of the reconsideration committee is to provide an open forum for discussion of challenged materials and to make an informed recommendation on the challenge.”

According to the policy, “The most critical component of the reconsideration process is the establishment and maintenance of the committee’s credibility in the community. For this purpose, the committee is composed of community members. The community should not, therefore, infer that the committee is biased or is obligated to uphold prior professional decisions. For this same reason, a community member will be selected to chair the committee.”

In reconsidering challenged materials, “the role of the committee, and particularly the chairperson, is to produce a climate for agreement,” according to the policy. “In these discussions, the committee should be aware of relevant social pressures which are affecting the situation. Individuals who may try to dominate or impose a decision must not be allowed to do so. Minority viewpoints expressed by groups or individuals must be heard, and observers must be made to feel welcome. It is important that the committee create a calm, nonvolatile environment in which to deal with a potentially volatile situation.”

When it comes to its deliberations, the “committee will listen to the views of all interested persons before making recommendations. In deliberating its recommendation, the committee should remember that the school system must be responsive to the needs, tastes, and opinions of the community it serves. Therefore, the committee must distinguish between broad community sentiment and attempts to impose personal standards.”

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