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Wilson Schools book ban may violate policy

By Jared Felkins jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated May 10, 2014 at 12:06 AM

A Wilson County Board of Education vote to ban a book from the schools’ required reading list may violate board policy, but returning the book to students without a vote to do so could be a violation of the state Open Meetings Act. 

The quandary arose Friday after interim Director of Schools Mary Ann Sparks released a statement that said the book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” would remain on the Wilson County schools’ freshman reading list. 

The mystery novel by Mark Haddon is about an autistic teenager investigating the death of his neighbor’s dog.

The action comes following a 3-1 vote by the board Monday night to remove the book from the reading list in the future, but the book was not banned from the schools.

Sparks said the decision was made to return the book to the reading list upon advice from county attorney Mike Jennings concerning a board policy that was possibly violated by banning the book. 

The policy said, “The board will seek to provide a wide range of instructional materials on all levels of difficulty, with diversity of appeal and the presentation of different points of view and will provide procedures for review and reconsideration of allegedly inappropriate instructional materials.”

The policy further said, “The board supports principles of intellectual freedom inherent in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and expressed in the Library Bill of Rights of the American Library Association. 

“Because opinions differ, there may be questions concerning some instructional and library materials despite the quality of the selection process. If a complaint is made, it should be made to the director of schools or the appropriate instructional supervisor.”

Sparks said Friday she advised school administrators Thursday to put the book back on the reading list and return them to students. That action came after the books were taken away from students the day before when the board’s vote was set in motion. 

“Because there is a policy and the board didn’t follow the policy, they are not following through with that so they can review the policy when they meet again in June,” Sparks said. “The books have been returned to the students, and they were not removed from the library shelves. It shouldn’t have been implemented because it violated a board policy. [Jennings] said we should follow our policy before implementing any change, and we are trying to do that.”

Sparks said any further discussion would be considered when the board meets again June 2. 

“What I advised was back up and look at it,” Jennings said. “I cannot advise my client to violate policy if that is the case. 

“Obviously there was concern about how they proceeded. I did it more from a legal standpoint. I did have email conversations with the board chairman and the director, but not with any of the board members.”

Jennings, who didn’t attend Monday’s meeting due to a conflict, said immediate action needed to happen when he discovered the board could be in violation of one of its policies. 

“My concern was when I heard this Tuesday was that we had a policy on this dealing with textbooks, library items or extraneous materials,” Jennings said. “It did turn out there was a policy, and this decision was made because I’m concerned the board may have been in violation of that policy with the vote.” 

The board, however, didn’t vote to return the book to the reading list and hasn’t met since Monday. 

Elisha Hodge, open records council with the state comptroller’s office, said the board may be in violation of the state Open Meetings Act based on information she received Friday. 

“To the extent that the board made a decision in a public meeting, they have to [reverse] that in an adequately noticed public meeting,” Hodge said. “I think that if the court were to look at the official action of the board, it would say the decision to take the book off the required reading list still stands.”

Hodge said the decision to ban the book from the reading list would at least stand until the board votes otherwise. 

“The minutes of the meeting, based on the information I have, would reflect a decision was made to take the book off the required reading list. That decision would stand because the board hasn’t had an adequately noticed public meeting to vote otherwise. 

Board member Wayne McNeese, who brought up an issue with some of the language contained in the book, made the motion to ban it from the reading list Monday night. Board chair Don Weathers, who didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment Friday, seconded the motion. Board member Bill Robinson also voted yes in the 3-1 decision with board member Ron Britt against. Larry Tomlinson was absent from the meeting. 

McNeese has mentioned “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in prior meetings.

“I’ve talked about this book several times,” McNeese said Monday night. “It seems like I’m beating a dead horse here, but it’s a book that’s on required reading. Some of the language is pretty bad.”

Britt said at the time he was informed that the book was not, in fact, required reading.

“I was told very clearly that it is not required reading, it’s on the list to choose from for required reading, and that is a big difference there,” said Britt.

McNeese then asked how the reading list was compiled and the criteria for the list. 

Scott Walters, testing and advanced placement coordinator at Mt. Juliet High School, said Monday night there is a committee comprised of a number of teachers, as well as administrators, who get together to create the list.

“It is based on literary merit, how often those titles appear in other districts or come up on AP exams. Common Core supports certain books as being exemplar texts, teachers’ experiences,” Walters said.

Sparks defended the book, as well as other literary works. 

“Through the years, different books have come up as being offensive to some, or maybe even the majority, and some of those books are now classics. I can’t tell you that I approve of them, but I will say that the option to read them, I feel as an educator should be there,” said Sparks during Monday night’s meeting.

Deputy Director of Academics Leisa Justus said she read the book with her daughter.

“My child read the book, and I read it with her,” said Justus during Monday night’s meeting. “So, barring the language, which I agree with you is bad…there’s merit to that book – not just literary, but also just from a personal standpoint – in point of view of an autistic child, and to have that point of view for my daughter was very powerful. She now studies autism.

“This was kind of a pivotal place in her life. Will it be for everyone? I don’t know. But is it important for us to expose our children to other viewpoints? Yes. Is it OK to have a conversation with your child as a parent, that some of those words are not appropriate? Absolutely.”

General assignment reporter Kimberly Jordan contributed to this report. 

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