Alabama Speak Challenge Nipped in the Bud

SpeakA challenge to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak at a high school in Albertville, Alabama was quickly resolved earlier this month when the principal responded that it was one of many books on a reading list, and individual students or their parents are free to select another if they don’t want to read it.

According to an article from the Sand Mountain Reporter, Speak is an option on the pre-AP English and Language Arts reading list for Albertville High School freshmen and sophomores. Some parents recently sent a letter of complaint about the book to city leaders, saying that it is “not appropriate for teenage students” because it deals with the main character’s recovery from rape. But instead of immediately caving to the demands of one or a few parents, as we’ve seen too many school boards and administrators do this summer, Principal Paul McAbee pointed out that no one is being forced to read Speak:

There are several books on the reading list that our students have the options to read. If any parent wants their child to read another book, that’s fine. We don’t have a problem with that. In matters like this, where parents might be sensitive (to material), we encourage input from all parents. It was not a book a teacher randomly chose, and it’s on many reading lists in schools across the country.

The Sand Mountain Reporter also spoke to Albertville City Clerk Phyllis Webb, who read the book when it was assigned to her twin grandsons in another school district. She acknowledged that some students may not be mature enough for it yet, but said that certainly does not hold true for all students of the same age:

Maybe some freshmen get giggly over sex, but it gave my boys the opportunity to see what a girl goes through. So many times, people take the mentality that ‘boys will be boys,’ and we as parents don’t concentrate on teaching them that there are consequences to what they do. Sometimes things mean nothing to us, but they mean something to others.

Shortly after the original article ran, the newspaper followed up with a brief editorial applauding McAbee’s handling of the challenge:

Some parents were uncomfortable with the topic [of rape] and, when they questioned school authorities, a substitute book was offered. That was the correct choice by school officials. Parents do have the right to monitor what their own children read but that right does not extend to children not their own. To allow a select few parents to ban books for all AHS students would be a terrible mistake.

Often when a book challenge turns into a fiasco like the one in Delaware last week, it’s because the school board or administrators think they will avoid conflict and negative publicity by quickly doing away with a controversial book. But Albertville and other districts like it demonstrate why it’s always better to address challenges calmly and according to policy: the issue will likely be forgotten in a month, but meanwhile the city and school district earned some good publicity both locally and nationally. Kudos to McAbee and Albertville City Schools!

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