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Alabama school system orders teachers to label controversial books

By The Associated Press
10.25.03

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Huntsville teachers must warn parents about books on student reading lists with controversial content — a move that invites censorship, critics of the order say.

A Sept. 30 order from school officials requires teachers to place an asterisk next to any item on a reading list that has controversial content.

At the bottom of the list, teachers should add the disclaimer: “Parents are advised that this selection contains controversial language, behavior, situations, descriptions or innuendoes.”

The administrative order, which did not require school board approval, resulted from a parent’s complaint to the board. The parent objected to her 12-year-old son reading Tex, S.E. Hinton’s award-winning book about adolescents that has references to sex and alcohol.

The parent didn’t want the book banned, but rather asked that parents be warned of such content ahead of time. School Superintendent Ann Roy Moore asked Sandra Shipman, the head of secondary education, to devise a labeling system for reading lists in all high schools and middle schools.

Edith Pickens, principal of Challenger Middle School, where the debate began, said English teachers there have not said much about the new practice although one teacher quickly sent home a warning letter. Her students are reading Huckleberry Finn.

Pam Smith, who teaches English at Grissom High School, doesn’t want to mark her students’ reading lists with parental advisory warnings.

“I am totally against censorship. Saying something is controversial and labeling it just invites censorship,” Smith told The Huntsville Times for an Oct. 23 story. “I don’t teach anything I believe I shouldn’t be teaching.”

Teachers must provide another reading choice for those who object.

Anyone can find something controversial in most any book and innuendo can extend to anything, Smith said.

“We tried to provide a pretty simple solution to a pretty complex problem,” school board member Jennie Robinson said. “As a parent, I believe I should have some control over what my children have access to.”

She said the labels help parents make informed decisions. She said some city schools already use similar warnings on reading lists.

Board member Doug Martinson Jr. said it’s “a slippery slope where it could get to censorship.”

“Look at the Grapes of the Wrath and same with The Great Gatsby,” said Martinson, citing classics that could earn a label. “I have a problem with it.”

However, he said, the warnings may work at the middle school level.

“At some point, you have to trust professional educators to make appropriate curriculum decisions,” Smith said. “I think what’s going to happen is we end up dropping summer reading, if it’s such a hassle.”

Board member Topper Birney said the board needs to revisit the issue, that teachers shouldn’t be asked to decide what’s controversial.

Board President David Blair said parents deserve some warning. Board member James Dawson offered no comment.


Related

School board considers censoring books, handing out Bibles

One recommendation calls for Maryland district to remove 'anything (from reading lists) that provides a neutral or positive view of immorality or foul language.' 10.11.04

Choosing what Johnny can read
School systems often agonize over which controversial books are acceptable to assign to students — and when to fight for them when objections arise. 10.30.05

Huckleberry Finn pulled from classes after parent complains
Book is to remain on Michigan school district's shelves, but curriculum committee to recommend whether it should have a future in classrooms. 11.04.06

Book censorship

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