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Dr. Ruth Stays in the Middle School Library

by webmaster last modified 2003-11-17 10:32 PM

On February 4, 2003, the Hollis-Brookline Coop School Board voted 6-0 to allow the book "Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids About Sex" to remain in the Middle School Library. We haven't seen the book, but by most accounts this appears to be a victory for the First Amendment.

This issue first surfaced publicly at the Hollis-Brookline Coop School Board meeting in November 2002. At that time, it was pointed out that a parent had exercised her right to have a book in the Middle School library reviewed, as she objected to its content. That book was "Dr. Ruth Talks to Kids About Sex." The review had taken place (per policy) and a decision had been reached by the Library Review Committee that the book should remain.

The parent then appealed that decision to the School Board, that appeal finally being heard at the February 2003 meeting. An account of that discussion and the vote to allow the book to remain was reported in the Nashua Telegraph and the Hollis Brookline Journal.

We commend the school board for making what appears to be the right decision in this case, recognizing that this was a balancing of First Amendment freedoms with the responsibility that schools have to create an appropriate environment for the children that come under their supervision (in loco parentis).

We also commend the parent for having the courage to exercise her right to have the book reviewed. One can see in the minutes of the November meeting school officials and others rushing to defend one of their own by discrediting the concerned parent. The remarks made by the Superintendent and others regarding the letter written by the parent to Principal Goyette were inappropriate. The parent obviously wrote the letter to express her disappointment that the review committee had decided to allow the book to remain, and for this letter to include phrases such as "robbing children of their innocence" is perfectly understandable. A discussion such as that which occurred in the November meeting serves only to intimidate and discourage other parents from raising issues of any type in the future. It is only through the raising of such issues followed by open discussion and debate that the school district can learn and grow. School officials need to be less defensive and more receptive toward issues raised by parents.

While most people would agree that the Dr. Ruth book belongs in the middle school library, many schools nationally are grappling with decisions on books in school libraries that are not so clear cut. What is clear, however, is that one shouldn't generalize, but must consider each book on a case by case basis.

To understand this better, consider the ongoing controversy in the Fairfax County, Virginia school system. On one side is the organization People Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS). The group has challenged a number of books not only placed in school libraries, but also recommended or even required as part of the curriculum. Many would agree that at least some of the books excerpted on the PABBIS web site are likely being placed or used inappropriately by schools, and in some cases the PABBIS challenges have been at least partially successful. It appears that the PABBIS challenges have succeeded in some cases in removing books placed in elementary and middle school libraries (on grounds of age inappropriateness) but have been largely unsuccessful in removing books from high school libraries. On the other side of the Fairfax County debate is the Right to Read Coalition, arguing for free access to books by area students. An excellent review of relevant law regarding the removal of books from school libraries, written by a high school student, is posted on the Right to Read Coalition web site.

Of course, as long as Hollis Brookline library personnel closely review books added to school libraries and the Hollis Brookline Coop School Board is made up of reasonable people, it is unlikely that truly objectionable books will find their way into area schools or that unobjectionable books will be removed. However, one need only recall the Christian Coalition takeover of the Merrimack NH School Board to imagine a troubling scenario in which creationism might be inserted into the science curriculum or gay-tolerant books might be removed from school libraries.

More on books banned not just from schools but from the general public as well can be found on the Alibris web site and the web site of the American Library Association.

"Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there." –Clare Booth Luce

Last updated February 2003

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