Florida Student Chastises Schools and Parents for Curious Censorship

Although the Leon County, Florida, School Board is standing by a principal’s decision to pull The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time from Lincoln High School’s summer reading list, one student is speaking out not only about how this decision violates students’ right to read, but also how this censorship should be seen as a cautionary tale for the dangerous road schools are going down if they continue to let upset parents dictate the parameters of school curriculum.

When Jaclyn Weinell, a senior at Lincoln High School, heard that her reading list was going to include one less book, she didn’t celebrate the lightening of her homework load, but instead submitted an opinion piece to the Tallahassee Democrat about the negative implications of the whole situation for schools, students, and the Leon County community:

I hadn’t heard of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” before it was assigned to my classmates and me as required summer reading at Lincoln, but it’s clear why teachers selected it.

The novel is excellently written, unusual, thought-provoking and has won significant awards. Student readers are encouraged to think — about autism, about family, about atheism and about science — and see the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old narrator with a rather unique viewpoint.

The book shows that differing opinions — and even vastly differing ways of thinking — exist and should be considered.

Yet despite the book’s many accolades and significant praise, Principal Allen Burch made an executive decision himself to pull the book from the summer reading list due to complaints from parents over the book’s “inappropriate” content and language. He did so without consulting a review committee — a decision that violated school policy and incited CBLDF and the Kid’s Right to Read Project to submit a formal letter requesting the book be reinstated. Principal Burch’s reason: He wanted to “give the opportunity for parents to parent.”

Weinell argues, though, that “telling students to avoid books containing ‘wayward beliefs’ implies we are incapable of thinking for ourselves. The removal did not give parents the freedom to parent, but instead attacked freedom of thought.” The book may have some course language and contain subject matter that should be accompanied by discussion, but that is the point of school — to provide a safe space for students to read materials that provide alternate viewpoints, challenge their thinking, and incite conversation:

Required reading at Lincoln has included Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, all of which are superior pieces of literature that include profanity or violence. The language of Curious Incident is not more offensive nor more inappropriate than these other significant works. The language serves to reflect a distinct culture and convey realistic emotional differences.

Although the school board argued that the principal’s decision was not a violation of school policy and stood behind the decision to not reinstate the book, the lesson that Leon County learned from this case — to look further at school policy in the future — was the wrong one, Weinell claims. It ultimately sets a dangerous precedent that pulling books from the classrooms and libraries when a minority of parents complain is acceptable. “The removal of this assignment sets an alarming precedent,” she says. “A few parental complaints can change the curriculum for everyone’s children, including older students. What literature will parents challenge in the future, knowing that they have the power to stop an entire school from studying a book?”

As a student directly impacted by this event, Weinell sees this as an opportunity to teach students as well as the community further about censorship in the classroom, why it is a problem, and why it needs to stop. Whether it be posting flyers around school to encourage her peers to read the book on their own or speaking out herself:

If administrators do their jobs correctly, this should never happen again. An alternate book assignment should have been offered and enforced. How can students learn “the difference between right and wrong” if they aren’t exposed to multiple opinions and allowed to form their own? How can we expect to gain a full education and prepare for adult life if we have gaps wherever a curse word is involved?

Read Jaclyn Weinell’s full opinion piece here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!