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Benefits of student literature debated

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, Jan. 4, 2004

Sex scenes, racial slurs, profanity and violence are found in their pages. So are searing depictions of alienation and hardship.

Whether public schoolchildren benefit from reading literature that some have labeled offensive, such as "Catcher in the Rye" and "Of Mice and Men," has long been debated. Though culture and values have changed since J.D. Salinger's "Catcher" was published a half-century ago, the question lingers for school officials and parents alike.

The Fort Cherry School District in Washington County recently struggled over the use of an anthology, "The Bedford Introduction to Literature," after a parent complained about its sexually explicit content.

Fort Cherry pulled the 2,400-page volume from its curriculum in November, but the school board voted Dec. 16 to return it to Advanced Placement English classes. Parents who find passages objectionable can have their students opt out of reading the material. "Bedford" was not returned to Advanced English classes, though teachers are permitted to use it as a resource.

District officials declined to comment on the controversy.

Similar battles over books have flared up elsewhere in recent months. Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, south of Sacramento, Calif., decided last month to ban a young adult novel from classrooms, but allow it in middle school libraries after a parent complained about its content and sexual language. Modesto, Calif., City Schools in November returned a book that stirred an outcry over its depictions of violence, drug use and sex.

Many schools allow a parent who objects to a particular book to ask for an alternate assignment, but the right rarely is exercised, a number of area school officials said.

"It basically comes down to knowing your community and knowing the values of your community, which I think our teachers do," said North Hills Assistant Superintendent Don Wills.

Jeanette Liskay, of Moon, never has taken issue with books her two children have been assigned in school. Nor can Liskay, vice president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Moon Area High School, recall other parents raising concerns.

"Depending on their content and when they are written, some of them have historical value. If we took all these books away, will we lose some of that for our students?" Liskay asked.

Problems arise when parents offended by a particular book decide neither their children nor others' should read the work, said an anti-censorship expert.

"No child is forced to read a book his parents find offensive or objectionable. That should be the end of it," said Charles Suhor, a field representative for the National Council of Teachers of English.

Suhor's council did not become involved in the Fort Cherry debate, but he fields about 100 calls a year from teachers in similar situations, and the council maintains reasons for using frequently challenged books. Profanity, sexual content, religious objections and violence are the most frequent causes of concern, he said.

Of the districts that contact the council, Suhor said about 85 percent have opt-out policies that allow alternate assignments.

Bethel Park has such a policy.

"No one is compelled to read anything a parent wouldn't want them to read," said district spokeswoman Vicki Flotta. "We have a lot of confidence in our staff in terms of knowing our students and what is appropriate for kids."

Parents need to know what their children are reading to make that decision, said Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association. They might be hesitant to object because they feel intimidated or overwhelmed by such potential opponents as the American Civil Liberties Union, Sharp said.

Plum spokeswoman Dawn Check said the district tries to avoid problems by having open, public discussions on books being used.

"We never want to hide anything from people. Education is about information," Check said. "We want to be open and honest with parents and allow them to express their concerns before the material becomes part of the curriculum."

Sharp said his association does not endorse censorship, but objects to books with graphic sexual content, excessive violence and blasphemy or anti-religious content.

"We believe a public school setting is not the place or time for these books to be read," he said. "There is a responsibility on the part of the school district to ensure that our children get a well-rounded education. However, when it comes to explicit sexual content, that's not the place of the school district.

"There are so many good books and alternatives and options out there," he said. "Why choose one that's going to offend a lot of parents?"

Suhor said that in many cases, the objectionable part of a book is taken out of context.

"It's a part of the book. If you take it out of context and say that's the essence of the book, that's a distortion," he said. "Sometimes people object to a book without reading the whole book."

Classes in Moon discuss potentially offensive material, Assistant Superintendent Bille Rondinelli said. Some historically controversial books are only used at certain grade levels, or only in honors or advanced placement classes.

"We try to talk about what has occurred during that time period and why something is no longer acceptable," Rondinelli said. "We try to relate it to the culture and the time period in which it was written."

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