The past few months have seen a veritable flurry of challenges to books that were assigned to students as summer reading, but it all kicked off in the first week of June with a Pensacola principal’s unilateral cancellation of a One Book/One School program involving Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Although he had previously approved the book, Booker T. Washington High School principal Michael Roberts abruptly changed his mind after students were out of school for the summer, citing “language” and “overtures.”
Roberts’ boss, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, eventually admitted that district policy on challenged books was ignored throughout the incident, but the reading program was not restored. Meanwhile it came to light last week that Mary Kate Griffith, the English teacher who spearheaded the reading program and did follow policy by originally having Roberts approve the book, faced misconduct charges which could have resulted in the loss of her job. We are happy to report that upon completion of the investigation, Griffith is not only still employed, but “fully exonerated” of any wrongdoing. According to Doctorow, the superintendent even “hand-delivered the verdict, so that he could apologize in person for her ordeal.”
Of course it’s wonderful that Griffith is keeping her job, but this positive outcome does not erase the school district’s woeful mishandling of book challenges. She told Doctorow that other books have been challenged in the past “and the process is never invoked.” If Superintendent Thomas’ apology was truly sincere, then he needs to ensure that the judgment of professional teachers and librarians in his district can no longer be second-guessed by a single biased administrator. The challenge policy exists to protect everyone involved–including the school district–while ensuring that any concerns parents or students may have about certain books are considered equitably.
As Doctorow pointed out, Griffith’s decision to defend the book is all the more remarkable since she knew very well what she was risking:
When I learned that Little Brother had been struck off the school reading list by a principal who hadn’t even read it, I was outraged, but I didn’t think there was much I could do. After all, without a strong teacher’s union, and in a time where jobs are scarce, I could hardly ask the faculty to take on their boss on my behalf.
But what Ms Griffith taught me was that teachers, even those who face dismissal and the breadline, are fearless when it comes to their kids. Ms Griffith knew that she was in the right all along, and was adamant that she would not be intimidated out of speaking out for what was right. The students of Booker T Washington High are fortunate indeed to have such a brave and principled woman running their English department.
CBLDF couldn’t agree more! Many teachers across the country already do speak up when books they assigned are challenged or banned, but we hope that Griffith’s example inspires even more to face down administrators who ignore policy.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.