Why can’t we let stu­dents de­cide whether to read ‘Beloved’?

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA MURPHY

To even show ex­cerpts of the R-rated movie “Beloved” in Fairfax County High Schools, a teacher must get ap­proval from the prin­ci­pal and de­part­ment chair and, most im­por­tant, would have to pro­vide two weeks’ no­tice to par­ents and re­ceive signed per­mis­sion slips for each par­tic­i­pat­ing stu­dent. But as­sign­ing the book “Beloved” re­quires no sim­i­lar no­ti­fi­ca­tion — even though the book is far more graphic than the movie. To me, that’s an ob­vi­ous and trou­bling in­con­sis­tency.

I am the par­ent who re­cently turned up on the front page of The Post for sup­pos­edly seek­ing to “ban” Toni Mor­ri­son’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning work from the Fairfax County schools. The truth, how­ever, is more com­pli­cated. In re­al­ity, this is­sue is not about the emo­tion­ally charged dis­cus­sion of book-ban­ning. It’s about trans­parency, con­sis­tency and choice.

I first ap­proached Lake Brad­dock Sec­ondary School in 2012 when my son made me aware of the graphic con­tent in the as­signed book “Beloved.” Dur­ing ini­tial meet­ings with teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, the dis­cus­sion fo­cused on parental no­ti­fi­ca­tion and pol­icy con­sis­tency. I even sug­gested plac­ing “Beloved” and other con­tro­ver­sial books on sum­mer read­ing lists so that stu­dents could choose from a se­lec­tion of works. Those sug­ges­tion were re­jected and, even­tu­ally, I was told that it was not nec­es­sary for the school to no­tify par­ents and stu­dents in ad­vance about “sen­si­tive” read­ing ma­te­rial — a po­si­tion that di­rectly con­flicts with the county’s movie pol­icy, as well as the state-man­dated

Screen­ing the movie for stu­dents re­quires signed per­mis­sion slips, yet as­sign­ing the far more graphic book does not. Why?

Fam­ily Life Ed­u­ca­tion sex-ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram.

In re­sponse to this ob­jec­tion, the school cited its pol­icy of al­low­ing stu­dents to read an alternative book if they find an as­signed work too dis­turb­ing. But this isn’t a true “opt-out” pol­icy. From a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion about the sen­si­tive con­tent of as­signed books is not com­mu­ni­cated well enough in ad­vance to al­low stu­dents to make in­formed de­ci­sions about en­rolling in a class or tak­ing on a book. And, even if the stu­dent se­lects an alternative book, the cur­rent pol­icy re­quires him or her to re­main in the class­room while dis­cus­sion on the as­signed book takes place. This clearly de­feats the pur­pose of se­lect­ing an alternative; it’s also in­con­sis­tent with the sen­si­ble ap­proach taken with the movie pol­icy and the Fam­ily Life Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram.

I don’t want “Beloved” to be banned. But be­cause the fac­ulty and ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused to im­ple­ment the same stan­dards ap­plied in the movie pol­icy and Fam­ily Life Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, my only re­main­ing op­tion, ac­cord­ing to Lake Brad­dock’s prin­ci­pal, was to “chal­lenge” the use of the book district-wide. In my cover let­ter to Fairfax County School Board mem­bers, and in a let­ter to the high school’s English de­part­ment, I rec­om­mended re­mov­ing the book only un­til a pol­icy could be put in place that pro­vided for ad­e­quate ad­vance no­ti­fi­ca­tion of sen­si­tive ma­te­rial. I stand by that rec­om­men­da­tion.

Can we move be­yond the dis­cus­sion of ban­ning books to the real is­sue at hand — a dis­cus­sion on pol­icy? Are those of­fended by ad­vance no­ti­fi­ca­tion and trans­parency re­gard­ing books con­tain­ing bes­tial­ity, gang rape and mo­lesta­tion just as out­raged by the county’s movie pol­icy and the state sex-ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram? How can more in­for­ma­tion ever be the en­emy of aca­demic free­dom?

Let’s take a rea­son­able, com­mon-sense ap­proach and give par­ents and stu­dents enough in­for­ma­tion about as­signed books to make an in­formed de­ci­sion. This way, nei­ther the teacher nor the par­ent is im­pos­ing his or her val­ues on any­one else. Keep the books in the school and in the hands of those who wish to read them. At the same time, let’s pro­vide a work­able pol­icy for those who pre­fer an alternative.

While the school board chose not to take up this is­sue, sev­eral pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments have oc­curred through this dis­cus­sion. Schools are re­ex­am­in­ing books that ap­pear on their as­signed and rec­om­mended read­ing lists. English teach­ers have taken it upon them­selves to is­sue per­mis­sion slips to par­ents re­gard­ing books their chil­dren will be read­ing, and par­ents are meet­ing with school coun­selors to de­ter­mine which English classes their chil­dren should take.

But most im­por­tant, par­ents are now aware of an is­sue that ex­ists within the walls of English class­rooms in Fairfax County. By pro­vid­ing suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion to par­ents and stu­dents, we are ex­pand­ing aca­demic free­dom, not re­strict­ing it.


The 1998 film adap­ta­tion of “Beloved” starred, from left, Kim­berly Elise, Oprah Win­frey and Thandie New­ton.

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