The Charles County Board of Education heard a barrage of criticism this week from parents, teachers and community members who were upset about a recent list of proposed goals for the school system.
The list of goals and suggestions, compiled by the board last month without attribution to specific members, included proposals to censor reading lists of "immorality" or "foul language," to invite an outside organization to hand out Bibles in schools and to teach the theory of creationism in science classes. Many with concerns about the document suggested that board members were trying to infuse personal and religious priorities into the public school system.
At an emotionally charged public forum Tuesday night, more than 200 people packed the La Plata High School auditorium, some waving signs that said "Do the right thing" and "Keep the public in public schools." Others shouted their testimony in rapid and impassioned bursts, trying to fit their comments within the three-minute time limit.
The resounding sentiment, punctuated by applause from the crowd, was that the board should not focus on instilling religious and moral lessons in the public schools.
"Today in Charles County I feel like I'm in the land of the ayatollahs, who also believe their religious beliefs and values should determine what is taught in schools -- who believe that their view of morality should be everyone's," said Kathy Miles, a math teacher at La Plata High School. "It's no surprise there are TV cameras here today. I guess they want to see if it really is possible to go back in time 100 years."
Evan West, a ninth-grade English teacher at McDonough High School who was accompanied by his 9-year-old son, said he was troubled that several of the proposals seemed "motivated mostly by a radical right-wing agenda" but also that some of the board's suggestions would lead to unwelcome distractions from academics.
"Proposals to censor book lists will put Charles County students at a disadvantage in a very competitive collegiate world and are in direct conflict with our own goals of raising Advanced Placement scores," West said. "Diluting the science curriculum with philosophically and religiously motivated pseudo-science will not change what the State Board of Education has said our students should learn."
He added: "As good as my son's teachers are at J.C. Parks [Elementary School] . . . I don't ever want them responsible for the education of my son religiously or spiritually. That's my job."
No action was taken on the board's list of goals, which includes more than 100 suggestions. The seven board members have split into small groups to decide which items should come back before the full board for more discussion.
Board members said Tuesday that they needed more time to work through the individual items. They said the meeting was a chance for the public to weigh in on the issues before anything is decided.
On the issue of handing out Bibles in schools, several said it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state but also would divert attention from learning.
"As all Christians already have their Bibles, distributing Bibles in the schools would serve no purpose except to intimidate non-Christians," said Bruce Kirk of La Plata, who said he had children in the Charles County system.
To Monica Kahn, 16, an 11th-grader at Westlake High School who is enrolled in the Advanced Placement language and composition class, the most troubling proposal was the one that would delete from required reading lists any books that offer a "neutral or positive view of immorality or foul language."
Several of the books she has read in high school have contained passages someone might consider immoral or inappropriate, she said, naming as examples "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee and "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.
"The only books that have no objectionable material are books that have no deeper meaning. Conflict fuels stories," Kahn said. "If the board truly removes books with this immorality or language, we would be left with nothing."
Before the public forum began, a committee that reviews the required reading lists for offensive material discussed its process with the board. Under current policy, if the committee decides that there is possibly offensive material in student reading -- such as profanity, sexual content or violence -- it can choose either to not approve a book or to place an asterisk next to the title so parents can be aware of it.
School board Vice Chairman Margaret Young and member Jennifer Abell said that simply putting an asterisk was insufficient warning for parents and asked the committee to provide more specific information about possibly objectionable material in reading lists.
"I think that's putting a little too much work on the parent," Young said. "I think that parents trust the school system to provide wholesome literature to students."