By Michael Alison Chandler and Erica Garman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008
A controversial children's book about two male penguins that was removed from general circulation at Loudoun County public elementary schools may be put back on the shelves in many school libraries, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said Tuesday night.
Hatrick decided earlier this month that only parents and teachers would have access to the book, "And Tango Makes Three," after a parent complained that it promoted a gay agenda. But at Tuesday's School Board meeting, Hatrick said he had "exceeded the authority" given to him by the board.
Because the parent's challenge pertained to the book's availability at Sugarland Elementary, Hatrick said, the decision applies only to that school, not the 13 other elementary schools that have purchased the book. Librarians at those schools can decide whether to return it to shelves, he said.
School Board members, meanwhile, said they are considering broad changes in the system for challenging books and will begin reviewing the policy at a committee meeting Tuesday.
Board member John Stevens (Potomac) circulated a draft of suggested policy changes. Under his proposal, School Board review and public input would be required before the removal of any book and a superintendent or principal would not be permitted to overrule a decision made by an appointed committee.
Board Chairman Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles) circulated a proposal that board members be able to review and potentially overrule a superintendent's decision to restrict access to a book. Board members are usually not notified when that decision is made, he said.
Hatrick told board members seeking to overturn his decision or revise the policy to "follow your conscience."
In a prepared statement, he said his decision to override the recommendation of a district-level committee and limit access to the book was a close one, "one that could be described as 51-49 at best." The decision was not meant to further any agenda, he said, "but to provide age-appropriate materials for young readers, period."
Half a dozen parents criticized or applauded his decision in comments to the board. Chris Stevenson, a Purcellville resident whose children attend Mountain View Elementary, said it was appropriate to shelter impressionable young students from the book.
"There is still no general consensus as to whether same-sex parenting is appropriate in society or not," he said.
Amy Dillard, a parent with two children at Hillside Elementary in Ashburn, said she was dismayed "that one person's objection has resulted in the removal of this book . . . and that another parent could make a decision of what my children can and cannot read."
More than 20 people wearing black-and-white clothes evocative of penguins stood up in support as she spoke.
Loudoun County Supervisor Stevens Miller (Dulles), who has a kindergarten-age son, said he had addressed the board more than two years ago to defend freedom of expression over concerns about a gay-themed, student-written play. "I thought we already moved beyond this. I guess I was wrong," he told the board.
The book is about two male penguins that hatch and parent a chick. The complaint was filed May 28 by Sherrie Sawyer, a teaching assistant at Sugarland Elementary, according to records the school system provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Sawyer identified herself as a Leesburg resident and a "concerned parent and assistant teacher" in the documents she submitted to school officials as part of her complaint and the two appeals she filed with Hatrick. She did not return a reporter's phone call Monday, and it is unclear whether she is a parent of children enrolled at Sugarland Elementary.
"I object to the homosexual theme of this book," she wrote in her initial complaint. "The two male penguins are described as acting like a male and female penguin. The zookeeper says, 'They must be in love.'
"I believe a student reading this book would be confused and would get the idea that homosexuality is a lifestyle that is supported by all. I believe that children at Sugarland would get the idea that the library staff and all Sugarland staff are supporters of this lifestyle," she wrote.
On June 6, a school review committee -- consisting of a parent, a Horizon Elementary librarian and a Sugarland teacher -- unanimously recommended that "And Tango Makes Three" remain in general circulation at Sugarland. On June 12, Sugarland Principal Angela Robinson wrote to Sawyer saying she agreed with the committee.
After Sawyer appealed that decision to Hatrick on Sept. 18, the district-level committee of administrators, teachers and parents reviewed the case. A majority voted to recommend that the book remain in the library collection, with two of the nine members in favor of removing the book and one member abstaining, according to an Oct. 3 letter to Hatrick from David Jones, the school system's director of library media services.
"The majority of the committee felt the book was a non-threatening way of discussing the idea of a 'two daddy family,' " Jones wrote. "They stressed it was a positive example of diversity. It was suggested that rather than remove the book from all students, it could serve as a catalyst for discussion within a family."
On Dec. 28, Sawyer appealed to Hatrick once again for the book's removal. He replied to her in a letter dated Jan. 28: "I have determined that the book should be moved from the general circulation area to the professional library in our elementary schools."