What Went Wrong in Highland Park?

HPHS signIn a disappointing but unsurprising move this week, the Dallas-area Highland Park Independent School District overhauled the process for approving books to be used in the curriculum. Instead of working from a list of pre-approved books, teachers will now be required to submit each title for approval along with supporting documentation. If the book is judged to be potentially controversial, it may be referred to a community feedback group for extra scrutiny.

CBLDF and other organizational members of the NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project had warned in a letter sent last week that the new policy essentially implements curriculum design by popular vote and will likely “come to haunt the district for years to come.” Factions of parents have already been debating how classroom book selection and challenges should be handled for the last several months, and the district administration as well as the board of trustees are obviously ready to be done with the issue. In reference to related modifications to the challenge policy, trustee Paul Rowsey said Tuesday night that “we could work on this for months and months and months trying to achieve absolute perfection and I think we would fail. The time has come to make a decision. It’s time to move forward.”

Unfortunately for Rowsey and for all district stakeholders, the new selection process implemented by the administration with board support will not move anything forward, but will only turn this year’s struggle over which books are appropriate for classroom use into an annual event. The bitter irony of the situation is that if the district had only followed its existing challenge policy when the situation first arose several months ago, it would not now be modifying its selection policy in an attempt to placate parents who feel empowered to dictate what all students can read and all teachers can teach.

The book controversy started during the summer of 2014, when some parents shared out-of-context excerpts from books on the district’s approved reading list via social media. Tensions were high by the time school resumed in the fall, and Superintendent Dawson Orr suspended seven books from the curriculum despite the fact that only one — Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain — had a formal challenge against it. That action was not in line with the district’s policy on challenges to instructional materials, and Orr quickly reversed the mass suspension when other parents and students protested. The challenge to The Art of Racing in the Rain had a positive resolution in November, when a review committee voted 12-1 to allow its continued use in high school classrooms.

Another of the infamous seven, David K. Shipler’s nonfiction book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, was later briefly challenged by another parent who said it was “socialist, Marxist” and “sexually explicit.” She filed the challenge in January but withdrew it a few weeks later, saying she did not have faith that the review process would be “objective and without participant prejudice to ensure integrity without conflict.”

Although news reports suggest that Superintendent Orr now realizes the importance of protecting intellectual freedom and ensuring fair consideration of each challenged book, the fact remains that this entire debate could have been largely avoided if he and his administration had followed the challenge policy back in September rather than bowing to public pressure with the mass suspension of books. We’ve now seen that policy in action with the challenge to The Art of Racing in the Rain: 12 review committee members read the entire book and spent hours considering its strengths and weaknesses, and 11 of them came to the conclusion that it was perfectly appropriate for the upper-level high school classes where it was being used. The dissenting member has since pulled her daughter out of public school. As our KRRP letter pointed out last week, there will always be a small but vocal minority of parents who object to almost any given book. Their views should not hold sway over the entire curriculum, especially since they’ve always been free to request alternate reading assignments for their own children.

We can probably also thank the policy for the retention of The Working Poor in the curriculum, even though that challenge never got to the review committee stage. The parent who filed the challenge said that she later dropped it because she did not believe the review committee’s objectivity was guaranteed, but it seems more likely that’s exactly what she feared. Although she maintained that the entire book was “Marxist,” her specific objections centered on a few mentions of sexual abuse that some of the subjects suffered as children. As the author himself pointed out, those passages are integral to the subject matter because the survivors feel that the past abuse is partly to blame for their struggles in adulthood. If the parent was apprised of the review committee preparations, she likely realized the futility of her effort after seeing the detailed checklist that all members would fill out after reading the entire book — and the challenge policy clause that says “a parent’s ability to exercise control over reading, listening, or viewing matter extends only to his or her own children.”

In light of these two fine examples of the policy working as it’s intended, there was no need for the district to negotiate any sort of compromise between intellectual freedom and community censorship. The lesson that other school districts across the country should take from Highland Park is to remain calm in the face of book challenges, even (or especially) if multiple books are concerned and even if a few parents are angry and vocal. Superintendent Orr was no doubt overwhelmed at the thought of going through the challenge process for each of the seven books that he temporarily suspended in September, but all he needed to do was point to the policy and invite parents to record their complaints on a Request for Reconsideration form. Most challenges would have ended before they began, since each challenger is required to read the entire book and can simply check a box on the form to request an alternate assignment for his or her own child rather than trying to have the book banned from the curriculum.

More challenges likely would have ended in the planning stage, as with The Working Poor. And although full consideration of multiple challenges is certainly time-consuming, it’s not impossible; the school district in Waukesha, Wisconsin, took on three this summer and ultimately retained all three books. By contrast, Highland Park ISD temporarily strayed from its policy and thereby sent the message to would-be censors that if they were only loud and determined enough, they could exert some modicum of control over the curriculum for all students. The unnecessary and burdensome new selection procedure is not a “compromise” at all; instead, it restores a community veto power that never should have been given in the first place.

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