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Changes expected after outcry over book selection

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rick Janacek

Fireworks erupted at the latest Humble ISD School Board meeting regarding the selection of books in Humble schools.

The controversy began last month when Ron Abbott, the parent of a seventh-grade student at Creekwood Middle School, addressed the board regarding the book “Stuck in Neutral” by Terry Trueman. The fictional book is told in the first person by a teen with cerebral palsy. The book deals with such subjects as disabilities, quality of life and euthanasia. Abbott believed the book was an inappropriate reading assignment for a child his son’s age. Abbott also raised concerns regarding a speaking appearance by Trueman at Creekwood Middle School (CMS).

Abbott once again addressed the board at this month’s meeting, along with several other parents upset with the selection process.

“The question boils down to age appropriateness,” said Abbott. “Is a seventh-grader capable of reading a book like this and not being disturbed? Furthermore, if you assign a book like this, the next question is that should there be a classroom discussion? And what concerned me the most is that the book was given to the students; the students read the book; upon finishing the book there was a content test and that was it. No discussion, no debate over euthanasia.”

Other parents also came forward to talk about the controversial book and others in school libraries.

“As parents, we want our kids to be reading good materials of good quality,” said parent Dottie O’Farrell. “That’s what concerns us the most. For all of us, when it comes to our children, nothing else matters.”

O’Farrell mentioned concerns regarding the way parents can challenge books they find inappropriate. This challenge includes a review committee, but O’Farrell said in her case, the committee consisted of the librarian and the teacher that assigned the book “Scary Stories” to her fourth-grader. She felt the process was not fair and equitable.

“My goal originally was to get this book out of the library,” O’Farell said. “But I changed my goal because I felt parents didn’t really get a say-so in what our children read.”

While many of the speakers at the meeting were in support of change, others came to the defense of both Trueman’s book and the selection process. One of those was the grandmother of a boy with cerebral palsy.

“The book “Stuck in Neutral” has somehow offended some of the parents of children assigned to read it,” said Stacy Williams. “This book was educational and courageous. The newspaper article I read said the book was inappropriate for the age group. Is Harry Potter appropriate for seventh-grade students whose mind is so influential? We also sign permission slips to have our children educated about sex, childbirth and diseases because those are facts of life. Cerebral palsy is also a fact of life.”

Atascocita Middle School (AMS) librarian Rita Kneisley also defended of the current system and her fellow librarians.

“All librarians in the district have masters degrees in library science and have taken several classes about materials selection and we do so with credibility,” said Kneisley. “This book is a work of fiction. If you watch the news lately, there is much more to be concerned about.”

Another controversy involving Trueman’s appearance at CMS is that Abbott and others complained Trueman used inappropriate language with students. That drew the ire of board member David Martin.

“If that happened there should be some accountability because we would hold our kids accountable if they did that,” Martin said. “There is no way on God’s green Earth that the phrase ‘F-off’ was meant to be interpreted ‘go fart off.’ You don’t have an adult tell a 12-year old kid that, and I will be darned if they will do that while I am sitting on this board. Totally, totally inappropriate.”

Board President Dr. Bonnie Longnion recognized the sensitivity of the emotional issue.

“I do think there is merit in appropriate books at an appropriate level and language to discuss tolerance, acceptance and values for people that are different,” she said. “I think sometimes if a book is controversial because of its language, that should be the parents’ only option to opt out. I think there may be other books possibly that address the same kind of issue.”

Humble Superintendent Dr. Guy Sconzo promised the board that he would bring forward a new policy that the board will be able to consider at its June meeting.

“In my opinion, we have not been as overt as we could have been or should have been in terms of enforcing what is a part of our policies and procedures and that is the parent opt-out provision,” Sconzo said. “That is an area that we have to be much more, and our expectations have to be more, proactive about.”

He said the changes to be considered would be in three areas: refining the review committee, opt-out procedures for parents, and the external speaker review process.

After the meeting Kneisley gave a statement to The Tribune, defending her views and the current process.

“All parent requests are honored at AMS and other schools. If parents don’t want children reading something, I don’t allow them to check it out,” she said. “Terry Trueman visited AMS, CMS and three other schools and the only complaints were here from parents at CMS. There were no other complaints anywhere else.”

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