Looking for Alaska Back in Lumberton, NJ Middle School Classrooms After Ban

Looking for AlaskaJohn Green’s Looking for Alaska was briefly removed from middle school classroom reading collections in Lumberton Township, New Jersey, this week, but was soon reinstated by Superintendent Joe Langowski who says he has “learned much” from the ban — namely, that district policy does not give him the authority to unilaterally remove materials.

The targeted copies of Looking for Alaska were neither assigned reading nor schoolwide library copies; instead, they were included in a standard set of books available for independent reading in 7th and 8th grade classrooms. When a parent complained about the book’s “mature content” at a school board meeting last Thursday, Langkowski promptly ordered all copies removed from classrooms, citing a district policy which gave him the authority to “evaluate the continuing effectiveness and utility of resource materials and recommend to the board the removal of those materials.”

The problem, of course, was that Langkowski’s action was more of a directive than a recommendation — and the school board had no say in the matter whatsoever. Moreover, Lumberton Township Schools has a separate policy regarding challenges to materials. As the National Coalition Against Censorship pointed out, that policy requires that the challenge be submitted in writing and that a review committee be formed to consider it and make a recommendation to the school board. The next step couldn’t be more clear:

No challenged material may be removed from the curriculum or from a collection of resource materials except by action of the Board of Education, and no challenged material may be removed solely because it presents ideas that may be unpopular or offensive to some.

To his credit, Langkowski said in a letter to parents yesterday that he had changed his mind after reviewing district policy and “speaking with various stakeholders in the school community” over the past week. The parent who originally complained about the book may pursue the challenge in writing as outlined by policy, he said, but Langkowski himself is no longer recommending that it be banned. However, he still believes that students have access to “reading materials which may be unsuitable for some,” and that the district must “develop a system for students to gain access to books with mature themes” — in other words, to block access to those books for some students.

In an earlier news article (now paywalled), Langkowski had floated an idea for how that might be accomplished:

creating a committee of staff and volunteers to look at every book in the middle school’s classrooms and library and categorize them as “Acceptable,” “Questionable” and “Unacceptable.” The unacceptable books will be removed and the questionable ones will be read and decided upon, according to the district.

This proposal is, dare we say, unacceptable for several reasons — not least of which is the fact that committee members apparently would be empowered to flag books as “unacceptable” without reading them in their entirety. Moreover, a book that is not right for one student may be exactly what another student needs. The people most able to judge individual suitability are teachers, students, and their own parents or guardians. Langkowski is to be commended for admitting he overstepped his bounds by removing Looking for Alaska from classroom collections, but we hope he will also realize his proposed purge is unworkable and will cause much more harm in the long run. The issue is expected to be addressed at an upcoming school board meeting next Thursday.

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