Round 2: Conejo School Board votes to accept controversial book in curriculum- and next?

By George Miller

Background

For months, a controversy has swirled about on whether the Conejo Unified School District (most Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and vicinity public schools) should accept “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie in its core curriculum for 9th grade students. Books are then selected for the classroom at teachers’ discretion from the core list.  It appears to be rather risque/vulgar, so there is debate about whether it is appropriate for children, especially 14-year olds and under.  But, for better or worse, the board voted 4-1 on August 15 to accept the book (meeting agenda and video linked below).

Books considered unacceptable for 9th classes by many community members

Board President Mike Dunn led the charge to present the book as unsuitable for use by 9th graders and make it an “opt-out” selection without outright “banning it” in the District. He experienced immediate caustic attacks and sustained ones since June, accusing him of “book-banning,” religious fanaticism” and worse. Two other board members seemed to think that the book was unsuitable, but on the night of the vote, there were no board troops following him. John Andersen made the motion to to vote on two books in question separately. No takers. On the vote, Dunn was the sole opponent of accepting the book, even with two other nominal Conservatives on the board. Readers may ask why he voted so if he was in favor of an opt-out. Since opt-out was not in the motion that was his next best choice,.

But, it wasn’t the crushing defeat portrayed by county Liberal media and advocacy groups. Sandee Everett was in favor of an opt-out process. Three board members- Dunn, Andersen and Everett, intend to address a “parental choice” policy at a September 12 or 13 study session which might lead to a vote at the September 19 meeting. 9-8-17: [ Ed. note- 9-8-17: we were informed by board President Mike Dunn: “The study session is canceled. I appointed John and Sandee to solve the problem and present a policy on 10/3.”]  “Some think that  straight “opt-out” or “opt-in” policy may not be legal under court interpretations of current state laws. However, Board Member Sandee Everett believes it is if the Board adopts a policy.

When I asked Dunn and Andersen separately why they didn’t modify the motion to address that, I didn’t get a straight answer. I suspect that they didn’t yet have their ducks in a row to address that, due to the legal issues and necessity to get a majority to agree to it, or that it was beyond the scope of the agenda item.

Board Member Betsy Connolly did not grant us an interview but emailed me from an airport while and sent the following responses to questions:

CVUSD Board Member Betsy Connolly

Q: Your impression on process and outcome of meeting?

I’m pleased that the board majority voted to add Sherman Alexie’s book to the core lit list for 9th grade. Unless there is good evidence that the process has failed, I’m inclined to trust teachers when it comes to instruction and trust parents when it comes to children

Q:  Next probable steps?

I hope that the board will include teachers students and parents in discussion as a policy is considered for the providing of students with alternative assignments if a family has a religious or emotional trigger reason to avoid a lesson.

 

A strong letter writing campaign by advocates of such books outnumbered the “anti’s” in several local publications, accusing opponents of book-burning, prudery, fascism and more. Quite a few of them showed up at the meeting to support accepting the book and heaping scorn and criticism on Dunn and to a lesser extent, Everett and Andersen.

Some book opponents spoke up pointing out what they said were the hazards of having such material in the curriculum. Most news articles ranged from neutral to pro-book. We didn’t see too much involvement by religious organizations. It appears that Conejo United may be one of those.  “Indivisible Conejo,” a left wing group in favor of such books in the curriculum, has been a key player.

The interesting thing was that Dunn was not advocating banning of the book. He didn’t want it on the core curriculum list, but it is already in three CVUSD high school libraries. He wasn’t seeking to have it removed, but was pushing a parental opt-out, which seems quite reasonable. So, most advocates weren’t just opposing Dunn/school board “banning” books, but also parents who wanted to do it for their own children.

When I asked Andersen why the meeting public speakers seemed to be weighted so heavily  toward the book, he opined that Indivisible Conejo was driving the opposition to the board controlling the book choices.  Dunn had another perspective. He said that in any case Conservative candidates were much more successful in the election, so the real authority, the voters, spoke much louder than pressure groups at the meeting. Sandee Everett finished way ahead in votes, while Betsy Connally barely squeaked back in with far fewer votes than last time and Peggy Buckles was voted out, he offered. (see official vote results below).

CVUSD Board President Mike Dunn

Dunn’s words: “The book is obscene with profanity including references to sex and masturbation.

  •       The government should not force a child to read an obscene book.  Forcing a child to read an obscene book is psychological child abuse.
  •       Opting out is illegal.  Students can opt out of sex ed, hiv ed and s/questionnaires.  Courts have ruled children cannot opt out of required curriculum.
  •       We do have a past practice where students can ask teachers for a different book.  But children fear asking because of retaliation from the teachers.  IE:  Mr. Gerber mentioned his A B child got an F in the class she requested a different book.  Only 13 students successfully got another book to read.”
Our enrollment is declining while Oaks Christian’s enrollment at 25,000 dollars a year is increasing.  This obscene book is one reason.
 
I think another issue from this controversy is whether our children will be controlled by government “experts” or whether parent rights will prevail.  Connolly thinks the government should control and raise our children.
When I asked for a motion on the action item, I paused….. I waited.  Only Conn and Phelps offered a motion.  John and Sandee were silent.
 .
Sandee and John then had the opportunity to amend Conn’s motion.  Neither of them offered
an amendment to put “Indians” on the recommend list.
 .
Offering an amendment to put “Indians” on the recommended list was my goal from day 1.
 .
No banning.  No censorship.  The children are protected.  John and Sandee wilted…… The worst damage is how this vote has affected the morale of the parents.  They are crushed, depressed and discouraged.  While the  secular humanists are on fire and energized.
.
It will take a miracle to find a policy that protects the children and that the courts will accept.
 
Dunn also pointed out that while the “Indian” book was added to the core curriculum, the resolution did not call for it to be designated or required. He added that there are no open teacher requests to use the book and in fact, one request had been withdrawn by a teacher.
 
At one point in the discussion Dunn asked ‘why there should even be a board of education if we’re not going to listen to the community’ and members are expected to always acquiesce to the decisions of experts?  Should parents be the firewall for what is included in their children’s’ education and should the board be their representative to ensure that community standards are met, as state law specifies? It raises weighty questions like who “owns” the children, does it truly “take a village” to raise them and when, if ever, does the “village” get trumped by the parents?
 
I asked him if relevant case law and statutes had been researched and he replied no, but they probably will be. He said that Everett will be the point person for developing a draft policy for the upcoming study session.
 
Dunn said that the outgoing Superintendent, Anne Bonitatibus, told him that 26% of school-aged Conejo residents were not in the public school system, meaning that they were in private schools, charter schools or homeschooled, if not truant.
 
Mr. Dunn and Ms. Everett both point out that there are already other objectionable books in the curriculum. For example, if you had a ninth grader in CVUSD, would you want him/her reading Excerpts from Snow Falling on Cedars?
 
Board Member Sandy Everett also spoke to us about the issue. Her thoughts expressed to us, in summary:
 
She wants to see a parental choice policy in place but does not want to “ban” any but the most objectionable books outright. She believes that existing state law permits opt-outs, but wants the structure to definitize and help manage it.
 
She noted that although there is an informal policy in place to permit opt-outs, it lacks any structure and legal weight, is not defined, published, publicized, so that parents are unaware of it and wouldn’t know how to invoke it if they did. In addition, parents would not even know if books were offensive, unless this was brought to their attention or they researched every single book.
 
 
Public Comment (samples)
 
Public speakers were skewed toward acceptance of the books and frank content in general.
 
Bill Gorbach- Favors book, felt that the board is betraying trust in the teachers and that this should have been on the June agenda. A lot of damage done already. He felt that the book had redeeming value and challenged the board to define “prurient interest.”
 
Todd Smith- Education is a state not a federal responsibility. Also it should be parents’ responsibility- not just leave to theirs. How important are godly principles? Many homeschool because boards don’t listen.
 
Steven Wolf(?)- Enlightened Citizens indispensable to the republic. Neo-Nazis/KKK against this. His granddaughter likes the book, thinks its teaches about life.
  
Tim Bond (Conejo United)- Concerned with several groups’ animated presence and rejected their “book ban” lies and hyperbole. Ensure responsibility to rights of individuals, values of community. These rights are not secondary to experts, bureaucrats. This will be challenged. Protect rights of students and parents. Demanded that the board have responsible discourse on this. Bylaws have been agreed to shall ensure responsibility to values, beliefs and priorities of the community. Protect rights of students and parents. Rights not secondary to experts, bureaucrats and these will be challenged. Objected to some board members use of social media on this issue.
 .
Sam Sarbo opposed book and believe board approval is required.
 .
Sally Tibbett- “A teachable moment. (Efforts to stop book are) “racism under the guise of free speech.” Likened it to “Charlottesville.”
 .
Sarah Tagiopadia (?) (Recent N.P. Park HS grad)- This is an award-winning book. Intelligent, thoughtful teachers. Celebrate “diversity.” Conejo is a small (300K), safe community, with occasions of racism/hatred.

It’s out there already

Some will say that restricting books in school is futile, because that and much worse are all over already. Anyone with unfettered access to the Internet can readily find anything from the most graphic pornography ranging down  to “shades  of grey”  and the only somewhat risque.  Some of it is quite base and even depicts illegal, harmful and – dare we say it – “immoral” behavior. On the other hand much of it depicts somewhat more mainstream “adult” activity. Some say it might even be useful as instructional material, but some of it is so unrealistic mechanically and socially, that it could actually be counterproductive.  One wonders how children process this and make their value judgements without sound guidance.

To be sure, entertainment media and curriculum content are far more explicit than they were years ago.  A combination of First Amendment cases, public preferences and pressure groups have opened up these to previously undreamed of levels (or depths, depending on who you ask). All this has made it harder for schools and parents to impose stringent standards on school reading materials or instructional material, for that matter.

So, is this book “the hill to die on” for board members? Why are advocates pushing such a flawed book and why are opponents attacking one which also has positive messages? While it has its share of offensive material, advocates say that it also has strong redeeming messages.  It has a 4.5 Amazon review rating, with over 1200 people weighing in on it. But multiple board members have told me and multiple public speakers at the meeting say that with all of the worthy books, why was one picked which is so flawed, so sullied with offensive material?

Although this work was rated the “top challenged book” for 2014 by The American Library Association, the group sent an 11th hour plea to the school board before the vote to accept it. 2014 notice:

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie   Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”

 

Religious views

Some religious groups oppose “pornography” (the word was derived from the Greek porni [“prostitute”] and graphein [“to write”], was originally defined as any work of art or literature depicting the life of prostitutes). We haven’t seen specific prohibitions in the Bible, but there are some passages that could be extrapolated into that, in that they warn against the behaviors that such works seem to promote. Reference.

We asked Ted Baehr, CEO of locally-based  Movieguide to comment. His words:

“As former head of the TV Center of City University of New York and former Chairman of the Institute for the Study of Media at the “Center for the Arts, Religion and Education” of the GTU at U.C. Berkeley,  teacher of cognitive development theory and media literacy since the 1970’s, I must reiterate that the evidence is irrefutable as Congress has concluded that children, at the early stages of cognitive development up to their late teens, are not capable of dealing with material inflaming their particular susceptibilities in ways that are anti-social and self-destructive.”

Paul White of Ventura QOL (Quality of Life), a strong Christian Conservative, opined (excerpts):

• I just finished a complete and thorough reading of the book-in-question in the Conejo District.  My conclusion is that the Board member didn’t use his political capital wisely in opposing it; but rather, gave liberals an undeserved opportunity to criticize conservatives who support better morals and values in our schools. If the Board Member thinks the overall book undermines moral/spiritual values in the District, he either didn’t read the entire book, or has an extremely minority opinion of the role that well-written but realistic coming-of-age stories can play in teaching values to juveniles.
 
• The book contains zero graphic descriptions of sex. It does include a brief discussion of masturbation, and a few brief mentions of “getting a boner”, that are not gratuitous in the book’s context, but an honest , unexaggerated portrayal of teen boys in a coming-of-age story.  It has no graphic violence, nor dark emotional situations, like other “classic” books on the Conejo list.
 
• The core of the story is strong.  An Indian boy  describes the challenge of growing up on an impoverished Indian reservation with: birth defects (and the constant mocking/torment that accompanied that), being suppressed by the (very accurately described)self-destructive, drunken, rural-ghetto atmosphere of reservation life, and the main character’s huge (and successful!) effort to surmount overwhelming odds and peer pressure, leave the reservation, attend a white school nearby where he found a better environment and education.
 
• Having administrated a school that drew students from 5 nearby Indian reservations, I found the author’s  criticism re both the horribly broken reservation system AND the Indian behavior that contributes to their problems, to be even-handed and very helpful in educating people about both sides of this unhealed situation.
 
Bottom line:  the Board member should have had better counsel.  There are LOTS of things to oppose and change within the Conejo district (the same issues I publicly spoke to), but this book is not one of them.  Letting this issue take center stage gives the district leaders a future “red herring” – an opportunity to deflect any justified future criticism the Board member might have of the essential issues that are killing ALL school districts, including Conejo.

Books that have really substantive plots and inspiring characters don’t need to turn to the  shock value of profanity, explicit violence, and scatalogical descriptions to create a (very) temporary  audience.”  Encouraging students to have moral standards for the books they read, is no more “wrongful censorship” than encouraging students to have moral standards for their behavior in regard to other moral issues, like honesty, sexual abstinence outside of marriage, clean/sober living, stealing,cheating, parental respect, profanity, etc.

It’s understandable that library associations would be against any kind of discriminating taste in choosing books for children.  The number of kids who read – the amount of time they read, and the dwindling future of libraries has combined to make them desperate to get more kids reading, even if it means recommending garbage.”

Opponents claim that opt-out already exists

Multiple people, including Board Member Betsy Connelly, mentioned at the meeting that opt-out already exists, so why is Dunn flogging this issue? If it exists, the District had done an exceedingly poor job of publicizing it and supporting parents in utilizing it. Board President Mike Dunn told CitizensJournal.us, that following the core curriculum is mandatory, which he asserted is supported by court rulings, He says he was told that parents could “request” an opt-out, which a teacher may or not consent to, In other words, parents don’t have the last word in child-rearing. He added that the courts have declared that sending your child to public schools constitutes explicit agreement to follow the curriculum/activities, with the only exceptions carved out as: sex education, HIV education, surveys and questionnaires. If they can’t live with that, they can homeschool or private school their children. Many do exactly that he said, adding that he believes that about 26% of Conejo Valley school age children are not in the public school system.

Dunn said he was at a parent-teacher meeting on this just recently.

Analysis

Rather than telling you what to think, may I instead leave you with a few questions and statements? So, the questions are: is it harmful? Does it violate community standards for 14 year olds? Does it have “redeeming” value? Does it violate religious beliefs? Does it violate statutes? Does it violate the Constitution? Are the statutes and school regulations Constitutional? Does an opt-out provision provide adequate safeguards? Is an opt-out provision legal? Do the board and community support that? Should books/videos used in schools warn about the consequences of actions described or at least be supplemented by instructional materials?

If this book was being looked at for adults, no government has any right to restrict it. But govt. and more importantly, parents, do have the right to restrict it for minors in a school setting. Religious organizations have the right to make recommendations to their members and even the general public, who in turn have the right to do whatever they want about it. Some of the book advocates have (deliberately and misleadingly) conflated restricting minors and “banning” it for adults and improperly invoked the Constitution to do so.

So far, we have reached four board members, all of whom are amenable to some sort of approach to guarantee parental discretion.

But of course, the issue is bigger than whether some books should be in the core curriculum and whether the Board of Education has the final say on district policy or “experts,” the state or the federal government do and under what circumstances. It is conceivable that this situation could have national significance because of the directions it might take.

There will tentatively be a study session on this at the September 12, 20017 board meeting. 

9-8-17: we were informed by board President Mike Dunn: “The study session is canceled. I appointed John and Sandee to solve the problem and present a policy on 10/3.”

 

Board members:

Mike Dunn, President- mikedunn19990@gmail.com

John Andersen, Vice-President- andersens_5@verizon.net

Sandee Everett, Clerk- sandee.everett@gmail.com

Betsy Connolly, DVM, Member- dvmmum@gmail.com

Patricia M. Phelps, Member- pat.phelps5@verizon.net

 

Mark W. McLaughlin, Ed.D., Interim Superintendent- mmclaughlin@conejousd.org

CVUSD Board Members- (R-L): Betsy Connolly, Mike Dunn, Sandee Everett, John Andersen, Patricia H. Phelps

 

Meeting agenda: http://www.conejousd.org/BoardofEducation/BoardMeetingsAgendas.aspx

Meeting Video: http://conejovalleyusdca.swagit.com/play/08162017-537

Based on this article, at least one jurisdiction has very different community standards

Star article

Acorn article

Local activist says Conejo School Board vote on racy book not what it seems

 

Agenda Item Details

Meeting
Aug 15, 2017 – Regular Board Meeting
Category
ACTION ITEMS – GENERAL – INSTRUCTIONAL SERVICES
Subject
Approval of New Core Literature Titles For English
Type
Action

ISSUE:

Should the Board of Education approve the new core literature titles for English Language Arts Instruction?

BACKGROUND:

The Conejo Valley Unified School District follows the California Department of Education’s adoption recommendations and all English textbooks adopted contain selections of excellent, high quality literature.  Many of these anthology selections are excerpts of longer works.  Students benefit from the study of novels in their entirety.  Our English/Language Arts Articulation Committee has given considerable discussion and thought to the merit of the titles placed on the core literature list.  This discussion and review also takes place in the Secondary Curriculum Advisory Council meeting and both titles listed below were chosen to move forward for board approval.  In an effort to provide more support and resources to secondary English students, teachers reviewed contemporary novels for supplemental materials.

The novels listed have received the support of the Core Literature Committee, English/Language Arts Articulation and the Secondary Curriculum Advisory Council.

Title

Author

ISBN

Grade

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Sherman Alexie 9780316013697

9

The Wild Truth Carine McCandless 9780062325151

11CP

ALTERNATIVES:

1. Approve new core literature titles.

2. Do not approve new core literature titles.

RECOMMENDATION:

Alternative #1.

RATIONALE:

These books were reviewed thoroughly by the 6-12 English teachers.  These novels will support and strengthen the core curriculum and broaden student’s knowledge and skills. Use of these novels will encourage/entice more of our students to read by offering them compelling stories with profound life-long lessons.

Educational Testing Service produces both the Advanced Placement (AP) and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) and these novels allows CVUSD to prepare our College Preparation (CP) students with equally challenging and rich works by celebrated authors.

FISCAL IMPACT:

School site funds will be utilized to purchase the books.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark W. McLaughlin, Ed.D.

Interim Superintendent

 

Prepared by:

Jennifer Boone, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment/

Title I School Program Improvement Professional Development for

Robert Iezza, Deputy Superintendent, Instructional Services

MWM:RI:JB:cf

 

George Miller is Publisher/Co-Founder of CitizensJournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxnard.


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5 Responses to Round 2: Conejo School Board votes to accept controversial book in curriculum- and next?

  1. Citizen Reporter September 8, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    9-8-17: we were informed by board President Mike Dunn: “The study session is canceled. I appointed John and Sandee to solve the problem and present a policy on 10/3.”

    Reply
  2. Laura Espinosa September 6, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    Excellent article. I believe there is an additional step in the approval of books in any public school district. That is the State Department of Education, first reviews all books before it even reaches the District. So there are multiple reviews. Parents may opt out already and any instructor will work with parents and their concerns and offer alternatives. Seems this incident was an attempt to take a baby step into actual book banning.
    League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC, District 17) strongly supports educational equity as part of our core mission.

    Reply
  3. Cyndy Marks September 6, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    This book is so vulgar and inappropriate for anyone under age.
    It should be the parents choice, not the school nor teacher.
    Parents have to answer to God how th ey raised their children, not schools.
    An X-rated book used as curriculum is so wrong.

    Reply
  4. William Hicks September 6, 2017 at 7:56 am

    There is no reason to vote for school board members in The Conejo Unified School District, as well in California in general. Because a “COMMITTEE” of “EXPERTS” makes the final decision and The Board Members are required to rubber stamp the “Experts” edicts. Parents that disagree with these “experts” have only the option to enroll their children in private school or home school them to avoid, what many perceive as, inappropriate subjects and language that exist in the approved book(s) of the “experts.”

    Point to COMMON CORE as the method that brought us here, where it’s a top own indoctrination of generations of future Citizens.

    Reply
    • William Hicks September 6, 2017 at 8:11 am

      Top Down, no top own.

      Reply

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