Views of the Few Send a School Into Retreat

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wendy Strang's son came home from Cabin John Middle School with a list of 100 banned or challenged books last month, and eighth-grade English was off to a provocative start.

Teachers at the Potomac school had instructed honors students to look at the list with their parents and choose a book to read. "It is important to know why a book may be challenged," the assignment said.

The challenges had just begun.

At the Strang house, the assignment was welcomed. "You know how standardized the curriculum is these days," says Strang. "This was interesting, creative." They chose "That Was Then, This is Now," S.E. Hinton's 1971 coming-of-age story about friends who take divergent paths.

English teacher Carole Tauber had given the same assignment last year, without objection. But this time, a few parents pronounced themselves shocked by a list that includes such children's standards as Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," as well as titles such as "American Psycho" and "The New Joy of Gay Sex."

But before kids even began to read their books, parents got this note from English teachers and Principal Paulette Smith: "It has come to our attention that an eighth grade outside reading assignment contains material that some families may find controversial. In response to the concerns that have surfaced, the assignment will be replaced."

Wasn't it obvious that reading a controversial book might involve controversy? Smith had approved the assignment before it went home.

So why the about-face? "We did get some feedback," Smith says.

Some ? "How many parents does it take to get books pulled?" Strang wonders. Or, as Suzanne Weiss, former president of Cabin John's PTSA, asks, "Why does the first person who comes in to complain outweigh those who want their children challenged?"

"A public school just has to be careful in terms of the types of material used for learning," Smith says. "You really do consider the political climate in these kinds of decisions, but there are also First Amendment issues. We didn't want to hurt anyone."

How many complaints did it take? Smith would only say, "Less than five."

I found two objectors; neither would let me use her name.

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