Middle School Censorship Plan Leaves New Jersey Community Torn

As a result of controversy surrounding Superintendent Joe Langowski’s knee-jerk decision to temporarily pull John Green’s Looking for Alaska from Lumberton Township, New Jersey, classrooms, the school board met to discuss the institution of some kind of rating system that would identify and segregate books that have “mature themes,” effectively establishing a subjective system that could blacklist certain books.

After Langowski received complaints from parents regarding the “mature content” and “inappropriate” language in October, and Langowski pulled Looking for Alaska from classroom collections, believing he had the authority to do so. The decision quickly came under attack by both the Lumberton community and free speech organizations , many of whom noted that Langowski violated the school system’s challenge policy, which dictates that the books are to remain in classrooms while the school board evaluates the challenge. To his credit, Langowski admitted his error and reinstated the book.

At the school board meeting, President Rachel Paulin commented that “while the removal of the book without board action was contrary to (board policy), the board believes this error has been rectified with the book’s reinstatement.” Other parties, including Langowski, feel that further, more drastic steps should be taken when it comes to handling books that might be upsetting to some. Langowski proposed a plan that involves “creating a committee of staff and volunteers” that will have the daunting task of reviewing all books to be included in schools and categorizing them either as “acceptable,” “questionable,” and “unacceptable.” According the Langowski, “The unacceptable books will be removed and the questionable ones will be read and decided upon, according to the district.”

As Maren Williams surmises for CBLDF:

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.

Sarah Hoffman, Youth Free Expression Program Manager for NCAC, writes, “How they will decide what constitutes a ‘mature theme,’ and what exactly they will do with these books remains to be seen.” She proposes another plan:

Indeed, instead of giving books a scarlet letter, we recommend that Lumberton School District encourage teachers to explain to parents how and why they select certain materials for their classroom libraries and what educational purposes these materials serve for their children. Focusing on the educational criteria for material selections would provide a meaningful, sound, and defensible way to evaluate books.

The categorization plan is only an idea and thankfully a formal decision to institute the plan wasn’t reached during the school board meeting. From reports, it sounds like Lumberton is a community divided. Some parents see the categorization plan as a successful way to regulate the content that their children have access to in a world that, as one parent commented, “place[s] so much emphasis on the sexing of our youth.”

Other parents, though, saw the plan as an act of censorship and detrimental to the developmental growth of their children. “I strongly believe that censorship is a serious issue that will have long-term effects on our children,” said Rachel Bunting, whose son attends Lumberton middle school. “It teaches them that language is troublesome, that directly addressing difficult topics is inappropriate, that curiosity is something to be penalized.”

They school board may not have reached a decision, but it doesn’t sound like this will be the last we hear of Langowski’s proposal. “A cool-down period is needed while we process the feedback from the community,” commented Langowski.

CBLDF will keep you posted on any new developments.

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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!