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 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.