10 AUGUST 2001

Fairfax County school district officials are drafting guidelines for what is appropriate reading material for children of various age groups. First a report, then a parent comments ...

School Book Bans: Sense or Censorship?

The push to review books is a response to a group of parents who have asked school officials to remove or restrict access to books with graphic sexual language and violence. The Fairfax County School Board, which voted in June to limit circulation of "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, will review the guidelines this fall. Board member Mychele B. Brickner (At Large) supports a board review of books, while parent Kerry Paul Altman, of Fairfax, a clinical psychologist, opposes restrictions.

Much discussion has ensued since the Fairfax County School Boardvoted 7 to 4 to restrict the book "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett to grades 10 through 12. After reading all 983 pages, my vote to restrict the book was based upon the fact that it is not age-appropriate for minors in a public school setting due to its obscene and pervasively vulgar content. Although this vote permits the book's availability for grades 10-12, there were not enough votes for its complete removal, which was my preference.

"Pillars of the Earth" is a fictional story about medieval life, cathedral building, the Catholic Church and the life of monks. It also includes very graphic and obscene depictions of sexual acts including oral sex, rape, gang rape and violence, including horrendous acts against women. One main character uses demeaning, violent and filthy acts toward women in order to get sexually aroused.

Why fill our children's minds with examples of sexually explicit material and such abuse toward women? These passages were not brief references, but very detailed, graphic representations that certainly qualify as adult literature. I cannot include an example here due to the graphic nature, but excerpts can be found at

When the challenge was filed, "Pillars of the Earth" was available in one middle school on audiotape, three middle schools located together with high schools, and in 16 high schools.

Parents trust the school system to reinforce the values they are teaching and to provide models for character and integrity. They want their young men to treat women with respect. Parents certainly do not anticipate schools are exposing their minor children to crude, violent and sexually explicit adult literature.

The board has rightfully established policies to protect children from inappropriate material. These policies restrict R-rated movies from all schools; inappropriate Internet sites on school computers; clothing with vulgar or obscene messages; and expression that is obscene, vulgar or advocates criminal acts.

Yet the board has no policy to guide the selection of print materials for class assignments, reading lists or library collections. With no policy on what is or is not appropriate, anything goes! Had a parent not challenged this book, even more school libraries could have added it to their collections.

In the 1982 case of Board of Education v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a school board could remove books from a school library without violating the First Amendment rights of students. The court declared that school boards "must be permitted to establish and apply their curriculum in such a way as to transmit community values . . . respect for authority and traditional values."

School boards possess significant discretion to determine the content of their school libraries, and removing a book that is "pervasively vulgar" or "educationally unsuitable" is constitutionally permissible.

In fact, last March the Supreme Court affirmed the right of a school district in Ohio to ban wearing Marilyn Manson T-shirts to class because they were determined to be "vulgar, offensive and contrary to the educational mission of the school."

Additionally, Virginia law (Code 22.1-208) states, "The entire scheme of instruction in the public schools shall emphasize moral education through lessons given by teachers and imparted by appropriate reading selections."

School Board members have the duty to obey the laws. We serve the public and have been entrusted with the welfare of all children. We act in loco parentis -- on behalf of the parents -- when making decisions. Clearly, the School Board's function is to determine age-appropriate material. This is not censorship but a matter of appropriate selection of materials in order to protect our children.

With no School Board policy on print material, schools will continue to face book challenges. To resolve this issue, the board must set a policy to guide the age-appropriate selection and use of print materials. As an added safeguard, the board should institute a parental notice form to inform parents of reading material that includes obscene descriptions of sexual acts and graphic violence and to permit parents to opt their child out of such material.

The board will discuss both in the fall.

Mychele B. Brickner


Response from a parent

As a parent of two children enrolled in Fairfax County public schools, I am writing to express my strong opposition to growing efforts to ban certain popular literature from the school libraries. This column is a response to the efforts of a group calling itself Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS).

I will not enter into a book-by-book defense of some of the titles which PABBIS seeks to ban. Titles such as "Black Boy," "Shogun" and "The Joy Luck Club" were mentioned in the article, as were the works of Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Any reasonably literate person can see the tremendous value of making these books and these authors available to our secondary school students. The themes explored in these works are timely and important, and all students could benefit from discussions of these works.

The specific concern of PABBIS appears to involve sexual and violent content reflected in the writings they find objectionable, and their fear of the impact it will have upon their children. There are many graphic references to murder, mayhem and sexual behavior in the Bible, but I have not heard of any organized effort to ban this book from schools or houses of worship. The issue is indeed concern about sex and violence, but the written word is not the problem. Lack of parental involvement and an unwillingness to engage in healthy, honest dialogue with children are the real concerns.

Forbidding our children access to literature that explores complex, if at times disturbing, social realities is naive and potentially dangerous, as it does nothing to prepare them for the responsibilities and challenges of citizenship and community living. It is equivalent to sticking one's head in the sand and just about as effective.

Parents need to embrace book discussions with their children as an opportunity to answer questions, share concerns, teach values and have a mindful influence on how our children approach difficult issues in everyday life.

Children should be encouraged to read thought-provoking works of fiction, which may include references to sex, violence or numerous other elements of 21st-century life, and parents should be available to discuss the issues that arise. My wife and I do not expect or want the Fairfax County public school system to police our children's choice of literature, and we assume full responsibility for making sure that the provocative and sometimes confusing issues they may encounter in books will be discussed respectfully and with an eye toward their developing character and values.

The members of PABBIS should be less concerned about being a posse and more concerned with active parenting.

It is astounding that parents of today's youth could be so mindless of the lessons of the recent past. Banning books is the first step toward autocratic control of thought and creativity. It was instrumental in Adolf Hitler's rise to power, and it has had a place in every totalitarian regime since that time. Uncensored opportunity for reading offers the best hope for the development of thought and spirit of our youth. With appropriate parental involvement, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

I urge the board to do everything that is in its power to prevent this unnecessary and harmful wave of censorship from stifling the minds of our children, and I encourage the board to vote against efforts to ban books in our public schools.

Kerry Paul Altman




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