After a national outcry over the removal of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from the 8th grade curriculum in Biloxi, Mississippi, the book will return to classrooms on Monday — with caveats. Whereas the reading assignment previously was “opt-out” such that any student or parent could request an alternate book, it has now become “opt-in,” which means only students who return a signed parental permission slip will be allowed to read it for class.
Biloxi Public Schools administrators failed to follow their own challenge policy when they pulled the book from classrooms in response to a complaint by one parent, who said her African American daughter was disturbed by the derisive and insensitive behavior of some classmates in response to the use of racial slurs in the novel. Instead of taking steps to directly address the issue with the disrespectful behavior of students, however, BPS tried to efface it by removing the book altogether.
Although BPS had previously said that students would have the option only for voluntary after-school discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird, on Monday Biloxi Junior High principal Scott Powell sent a letter to parents outlining the new option of “an in-depth book study” of the novel during class time. Students with parental permission will read and complete assignments on Lee’s book, while the remainder of the class will have an unspecified alternate reading assignment.
In addition to the letter sent by CBLDF and other members of the Kids’ Right to Read Project last week, BPS also received letters in support of the book from a New Jersey class of AP English Language and Composition students, and from the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. In light of the fact that some of Twain’s novels have also been frequently challenged for depictions of racism and the use of racial slurs, museum staff offered BPS their “expertise, resources and experience helping educators and other entities teach difficult subject matter.”
While it’s certainly good news that To Kill a Mockingbird will return to the BPS curriculum in some form, that doesn’t negate the fact that administrators failed to follow the district’s challenge policy, which says that only a review committee can vote to remove a book from classrooms. Additionally, the new parental permission requirement simultaneously stigmatizes the book and throws up an additional hurdle to student access. Similar ordeals can be avoided in future by simply following the policy as written!
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.