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A Times Editorial

School Board should avoid trying to interpret morality

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001

The Hernando County School Board overreacted Tuesday when it decided to pull an award-winning children's book from the shelves of the district's school libraries. As a result, the majority of children whose parents do not object to the book, Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, are being denied the opportunity to read what most people would agree is a thought-provoking and humorous piece of literature.

Freaky Friday was first published in 1972 and was made into a popular Disney motion picture starring Jodie Foster in 1977. The comedy is about a self-centered 13-year-old girl and an impatient mother who earn a greater appreciation of each other after they miraculously switch bodies. The content of the book was brought into question by the parent of a J.D. Floyd Elementary School student. Joan Anderson objected to more than two dozen passages in the book she believes are too suggestive of violence and vices, such as smoking, drinking and cursing.

While Anderson should be commended for taking such a keen interest in her child's education, she should not infringe on other parents' rights by effectively censoring what their children read. It clearly is parents' responsibility to help their children choose appropriate reading materials from the school library. If parents believe a book is in poor taste or conveys a dangerous message, they also have a responsibility to share that concern with school officials.

There is a procedure for handling such complaints, and it includes convening a diverse committee of educators, parents, students and librarians to examine the literature more closely. That took place in this instance, and the committee unanimously recommended keeping Freaky Friday in its library. However, Anderson appealed to the School Board, whose members decided to pull it from the shelves of all elementary schools, including Chocachatti, Pine Grove, Westside and Deltona, and Powell Middle School. The board is expected to make a final decision Feb. 6.

This is not the first time the board has engaged in censorship. In 1998 the board upheld a decision by Marvin Gordon, principal at Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, to ban the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical account of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maya Angelou's childhood. Gordon unilaterally overruled the recommendation of that school's media review committee, and the board then refused to overrule Gordon.

Even though that should be condemned as censorship, circumstances made it somewhat more understandable. Angelou's book, which has been challenged in many other schools across the country, was being used as part of the curriculum for an eighth-grade advanced reading class at Parrott. Because it was assigned reading, and because the book contained some rather explicit descriptions of human anatomy, it had to be judged from a different perspective.

But Freaky Friday is a for-recreation-only book, not required reading, and the passages Anderson takes exception to are tame by almost anyone's standards. At worst, they depict adult behavior that, although not ideal, is fairly common and routinely witnessed by children. And, with guidance from their parents, most of those children can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality.

When the controversy emerged about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we urged the School Board to instruct the superintendent to develop a comprehensive policy for selecting books and other media materials. Now, two years later, the committee that reviewed Freaky Friday cited the lack of "a policy related to selection criteria for media materials" and recommended that the superintendent establish one.

Because of that lack of foresight, the board is once again being steered into a divisive debate that will be marked by emotions and attempts to interpret morality, rather than approaching the subject calmly, objectively and purely in the best interest of students.

Teachers and other school officials have the responsibility to set the curriculum in public schools. They rely on the School Board ultimately to trust and validate their expertise, professionalism and dedication to students. That is exactly what the board should do in this case and then direct the superintendent to propose a formal selection criteria for books that are available in the libraries.

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