School Censorship Update: Victory in Two Delaware School Districts, Setback in Hanover County

January 16, 2015
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cbldf_logoWhile we’ve largely focused on the tragically relevant Charlie Hebdo attack and its global aftermath for much of the past week, the business of U.S. school boards has been marching on as well. We have a few updates from cases in which CBLDF joined with other free speech advocates to oppose school policies that would place unnecessary restrictions on books and other course materials.

First, the good news: In Delaware’s Appoquinimink School District, administrators have withdrawn a proposal that would have “red-flagged” books according to arbitrary standards and would have required parents to give express permission for their children to read any assigned book that contains “areas of concern.” A separate proposal, also now withdrawn, would have allowed parents to bar their children from checking out all such books from school libraries as well.

The proposals were to be discussed by school board members at a meeting this week, but the district’s administration instead reversed course after hearing from members of the community as well as the CBLDF-sponsored Kids’ Right to Read Project and several other free speech advocacy groups. Superintendent Matthew Burrows said:

After listening to comments from our community and convening a committee with student, teacher, librarian, and administrative representation, we feel that we have policies and procedures in place that adequately address the needs of stakeholders.

As in most school districts, Appoquinimink students and parents were already free to request an alternate assignment on an individual basis if they had content concerns with a book being read for class.

Good news from another Delaware school district as well: A subcommittee of the Indian River School Board has recommended not to censor information on LGBT sexualities from the district’s new health curriculum, and the board member who previously said he had “issues [with] teaching it’s okay to be gay” seems to have changed his mind. Shaun Fink initially raised the issue in September, saying that the curriculum’s information on sexuality, birth control, and STD prevention clashed with his religious beliefs. After participating in a three-month review process with the other members of the subcommittee, however, Fink said this week that “we’ve really got, I think, a winning curriculum here.” The subcommittee’s recommendations on the curriculum will be presented to the school board on January 26.

Unfortunately there was also some not-so-good news this week from Hanover County, Virginia, where the school board unanimously voted without discussion to implement a policy requiring teachers to notify parents before using any class materials the district deems “controversial.” The policy revision was prompted after high school students watched the documentary Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: Searching for the Roots of 9/11. Some parents said that the film “expressed sympathy with terrorists” because it examined the complex situation in the Middle East prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The school board rejected a challenge to the documentary in December, but followed up with the new policy soon after. In a letter to the school board prior to the board vote, CBLDF and other NCAC members warned that the policy may lead to prior censorship as teachers stick to “safe” materials rather than more challenging and thought-provoking ones.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.

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