Conejo Valley Teachers Fight Back Against Proposed ‘Red-Flagging’ Policy

Scarlet LetterAfter a months-long standoff over initial curricular approval for Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian this summer, teachers in California’s Conejo Valley Unified School District say that one school board member is trying to push through a new policy requiring them to warn parents of any assigned book considered to have “mature content.”

The latest twist in the saga began last month when duelling committees–one made up of teachers, a principal and administrators, and another comprising just two board members–met separately to draw up new policies on alternate reading assignments to be offered when a parent or student objects to the primary text.

But multiple teachers say that board member Sandee Everett, a member of the latter committee, is attempting to make a major curricular overhaul well outside the scope of her stated task. Everett’s proposed policy, which has been disavowed even by her fellow committee member Pat Phelps, would require that teachers notify parents of any assigned books “that have been identified by the California Department of Education as having mature content.”

This ‘red-flagging’ proposal would not encompass the Young Adult novel Absolutely True Diary, but would cover a total of 216 fiction and nonfiction books from the state’s Recommended Literature List, including Beloved, The Handmaid’s Tale, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and many more. (To retrieve the full list, enter the phrase “adult readership” in the Annotation field and select “All of these words” before searching.)

In an email conversation among teachers that was released to the Thousand Oaks Acorn newspaper, Westlake High School English teacher Joe Nigro correctly pointed out that “once these labels are placed on any book, that text is dead in the water, and many parents will opt out without even investigating further.”

Nigro also encouraged his colleagues to rally opposition against Everett’s rogue proposal at a school board meeting tonight in order to ensure that students continue to read more than “just…safe books written by only dead white guys.”

The summer struggle over Absolutely True Diary began in June when school board president Mike Dunn failed the include the routine approval of the book on the agenda for the final board meeting of last school year. Dunn had previously said he was concerned about profanity in the novel. The board finally held the vote during its first meeting of this school year in August, with Dunn casting the only no vote, but by then it was too late for teachers to include the book in lesson plans for the Fall semester.

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