English Teachers Speak On Continued Book ‘Challenges’ As BOE Modifies 'Banning' Rhetoric
During the April 18 Board of Education meeting action on the minutes, Chair Deborra Zukowski moved to amend the minutes from the April 4 meeting.
She proposed to replace the words “banning the books” and “banning books” with “book challenges.” This is referring to the recent community debate around whether certain books, particularly a graphic novel called Flamer, should be kept on the shelves of the high school and middle school.
“The board intends to engage in a thoughtful, deliberative, and informed discussion on May 2,” said Zukowski, referencing an upcoming meeting. “To do this, we need to begin by using language that is open to conversation, not language that closes it down.”
The motion to amend passed unanimously, and the minutes were approved by the board.
At the meeting of May 2, the board will be considering the report of a new “special review committee” for “the book challenge process as outlined in policy 8-302,” according to Zukowski.
Zukowski said they will meet on the morning of April 20 “to prepare a draft report of majority and minority opinions.”
The committee is composed of Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti, Newtown High School Principal Dr Kim Longobucco, Library Media Specialist Liza Zandonella, as well as Dave Foss and Abbi Marks who are teachers at NHS. Foss teaches social studies, and Marks is the chair of the English department.
A Call To Read
At the time for public participation, three English educators from Newtown High School spoke. Before they did, NHS senior Joseph Cosby approached the board, finishing his remarks referencing a Laurie Halse Anderson quote: “Censorship is the child of fear, and the father of ignorance.”
Sayward Parsons, an English teacher at NHS, also referenced Halse Anderson’s work in her testimony. She talked about selecting Speak for ninth grade curriculum in her first year of teaching. She said she knew students would be compelled by the story.
A parent challenged the book, and asked Parsons why she was qualified to teach about rape.
“If she had read the whole book, she would have understood how the imagery served as a physical manifestation of the girl’s pain,” Parsons said, continuing that images online and decontextualized lines from Flamer are “used to stir outrage” and “mainly works on those who haven’t read the book.”
“People who read it understand Flamer is not one comic panel, it is an entire narrative about coping with bullying and discomfort to work through self acceptance,” Parsons said, and asked which “decontextualized moment” could Romeo and Juliet be reduced to.
“Would we reduce it to the moment Romeo and Juliet, who is 13, wake up after having sex for the first time just a day after they meet and deem them poor role models?” asked Parsons. “If only Shakespeare could accomplish his goals without sexually explicit content.”
Parsons said what she finds most troubling about Romeo and Juliet is the two teenagers commit suicide.
“We still read it, because we believe that reading about hard things leads to empathy. It leads to discussions around what teenagers feel and think,” Parsons said.
Jacqui Kaplan, another NHS English teacher, also referenced those who spoke “against Flamer” who have “openly admitted” to not reading the work.
“Is this what we’ve become as a community? A place where the willful ignorance of a few can stray the intellectual and academic integrity of the many?” Kaplan asked.
Kaplan said she feels strongly about “many aspects of the banning discussion.”
“I will call it that,” Kaplan said, in contrast to the board’s amendment to its rhetoric in the April 4 minutes. She said she would like to speak to “the embarrassment to our town caused by the smear debate.”
Kaplan said the NHS English department boasts top graduates of top colleges, a PhD, and former lawyers who stayed because they have found “a commitment to the pursuit of intellectual curiosity, academic freedom and the vocation to expand the minds of our youth.”
“Let me put it this way,” Kaplan continued. “The Taft School is not removing books from its library based on the outcry of a few parents.”
“The pursuit of dogmatic regurgitation is the opposite of learning,” said Kaplan. “To learn, you must be exposed to ideas that challenge and be able to debate the efficacy of those ideas with free and open inquiry.”
Kaplan voiced the district known for its educational quality, support of gifted students, and graduates who go to Ivy League schools is being allowed to turn into “a laughing stock.”
“Banning books for fear of exposing our children to new ideas is antithetical to the entire purpose of a board of education, and damages the reputation of the district, perhaps irrevocably,” said Kaplan.
‘World Beyond The Walls’
Kaplan said she does interviews for Yale Admissions, and the students she meets “aren’t quaking in their boots at the mention of masturbation in a novel, graphic or otherwise,” in reference to content in Flamer.
In her speech, Parsons said teenagers “draw penises in notebooks, write shocking things on bathroom walls, lip sync explicit lyrics and post it on TikTok.” She continued that some label a book as pornography because it explores things young people overhear, think about, and talk about.
Parsons said she is confident the board will consider that “small groups of parents have always felt some materials are not suitable for their children,” but the personal choice becomes censorship when access is taken from all children.
“As the board’s own policy states that you will defend the professional judgment of the staff and make every effort to maintain an atmosphere of academic freedom, I’m confident you would protect the freedom to read,” said Parsons.
In her discussion about Romeo and Juliet, Parsons added that the tragedy of the work allows readers to wonder about the alternative, where teenagers are validated and given skills to navigate a challenging world. She said they would make independent decisions, and cope with bad things that happen to them.
“Our students are a few years or months away from college or the workforce,” NHS teacher Kristin English said, participating by phone. “When you limit their exposure to the world, you leave them less prepared to face it when it’s time.”
English said when books are removed from the shelves, chances of the student seeing representations of their own experiences and the experiences of others become limited.
“Books show both the harsh realities and the complicated beauty of the world beyond the walls of their homes and school,” said English.
English stated NHS students deserve to “succeed and flourish” when they leave high school, which, she said, cannot happen when books are banned.
English added she doesn’t believe the books are being challenged for “the words or images on the page,” but because the LGBTQ theme causes discomfort.
“You’re allowed to be uncomfortable, but you should not decide what others should read, especially if you haven’t even read the book,” said English.
A Voice For ‘Right And Wrong’
Among individuals who are not English teachers who spoke during participation was Jennifer Nicoletti, against the books in question being provided in school libraries.
Nicoletti said she hopes parents who write to the board are given the same consideration as those who attend to meetings to speak, as some parents have “an added layer of trepidation to speak when [they] are being called homophobic, racist…”
“The parents that do have concerns about elicit content being made available in our school libraries have directed our concerns at exactly that — that content,” said Nicoletti.
She continued that the issue was not political or not about diversity and inclusion, but a right and wrong issue on behalf of the children, and that pornographic or explicit content does not belong in schools in any context.
“If I provided similar content to children with the same graphic images and descriptions of sexual acts, I would be arrested,” Nicoletti said. “It’s a class D felony in Connecticut to provide minors with such materials, yet it is in our libraries.”
Nicoletti said she finds it incredulous that the book (without specifying Flamer), is being asked to be included “under the guise of inclusivity.”
“You mean to tell me that we cannot find books that support diversity and inclusion, which I am all for, without having to include graphic and sexual content?” Nicoletti asked.
The speaker requested the board “implement policies and procedures that safeguard children from materials that are inappropriate for their age and understanding,” removing unsuitable content. She said the same care should be taken when selecting books as it is when labeling music and movies.
Nicoletti stated to the board that if they do not take action, they are complicit and “susceptible to the same legal action to those who are providing the content to our children.”
Joseph, the NHS senior who spoke, said Flamer “acknowledges mental health problems that middle school [students] face.” These include issues of body images and sexual identity that are addressed throughout the book, according to Joseph, as well as the protagonist’s struggles “as a teenager, coming into himself.”
“Here on page 37, he talks about wanting to join the football team to hopefully try and fit in with the rest of the boys,” said Joseph, holding open a copy of Flamer for the board. “We need to promote inclusivity, not just for LGBTQ youth, but also focus more on mental health and make sure youth are comfortable with themselves and their surroundings.”
Joseph’s comments to the board included a call for voices challenging the works to cite with direct references.
“If I must cite quotes and give page numbers in an essay in my English class to back up my claims, you ought to do the same tonight,” Joseph said.
Before concluding, he said if someone thinks a book should be banned because it discusses hard topics, there should “simply be a trigger warning before the student checks the book out at the library.”
Jack Tanner said he was confused about the accounts of the April 4 meeting he had attended as detailed by the board’s minutes and reporting by The Newtown Bee.
“I don’t believe that I heard any such language of anyone wanting to ban books,” he said.
Tanner said he would pray for the board of education to “balance both sides of the issue”: parents who “feel certain books are inappropriate for certain ages of children” and parents who feel access to the books in question would help children who struggle with issues in their lives and provide meaningful discussion in dealing with those issues.”
Connie Cooper liked the idea of an app originally suggested by Danielle Lozer at the April 4 meeting, where school libraries could flag books a parent may deem unsuitable, calling it “a stroke of genius.”
“That would give them their parental rights to not allow their child to have access,” she said.
Cooper continued that there are rights for parents who want their children to have access to the books, and should not have their rights restricted.
“It just seems to be like a win-win. All of us parents want rights, but we don’t want to infringe on other people’s rights to access, to free speech, things that our country was founded on.”
The Board of Education meeting on May 2 will begin at 7 pm.
Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.