Conejo Valley Board Leaves Part-Time Indian in Limbo for Upcoming School Year

absolutelytrueDespite a letter from CBLDF and other members of NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project, the school board of Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks, California failed to take any action on approving Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for 9th grade classroom use at its final meeting of the school year. The board plans to take up the issue again in August, but by then it will likely be too late for the teacher who requested approval to use it in the upcoming school year.

In past years, the school board has made decisions on all books that teachers indicated they’d like to use in the following school year prior to the final board meeting of the previous year. This time around, however, the process hit a snag after board president Mike Dunn raised objections to Part-Time Indian, which he has not read. Claiming that the board needed more time to consider the book, Dunn removed the approval from the meeting agenda so that the vote could not take place.

After the last meeting of the school year came and went without a vote, Dunn now says that although district policy already gives parents the right to opt their children out of any assigned reading, in this case he favors an opt-in process whereby “the parent would receive a warning that this particular book contains profanity and may not be appropriate for their child.” As was already pointed out in the KRRP letter sent last week, however, plenty of other works commonly taught at the high school level and already approved by the board also include profanity:

That Part-Time Indian contains strong language does not discount its pedagogical value as a whole. Otherwise, classic works like Julius Caesar, The Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World – all of which are widely taught and Board-approved for the CVUSD core literature curriculum – would have no place in classrooms and libraries because of their respective inclusion of profanity and sexual references.

CBLDF has joined several defenses of Alexie’s award-winning novel over the years. It has appeared on ALA’s annual list of the most challenged books on several occasions since its 2007 publication despite accolades from The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more. It won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and several other awards, and it has been included in school curricula around the country since publication. Most recently, the book weathered challenges in Minnesota’s New London-Spicer School District and Wisconsin’s Sauk Prairie High School.

When last week’s meeting agenda was released and it became evident that there would be no vote on Part-Time Indian, members of the public used the open comment period to decry the stalled approval process. Among them was Lucia Lemieux, a teacher of English and creative writing at CVUSD’s Newbury Park High School:

There is no evidence that the board here is acting in the best interest of the majority of these students. In fact, it is harming them and the community. The board’s job is not to pre-filter curriculum. It does not have to be a police force for these students.

The next opportunity for the board to vote will now be on August 15 at the first meeting of the 2017-2018 school year. Perhaps Dunn should use the intervening weeks to read Part-Time Indian in its entirety!

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