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Fremont Unified School District Board meeting report

By Miriam G. Mazliach

July 10, 2012

At the June 27 Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) Board meeting, the agenda item on “Supplemental [classroom reading] Materials,” had to wait to be addressed until past 12:30 a.m., almost six hours after the 6:30 p.m. Board meeting had originally begun. A few hearty individuals remained to voice their opinions to the Board on the issue. In question was the adoption of several works of literature, at the Secondary grade level. The books are for the supplemental list, not required reading, and primarily for 12th grade AP Literature, which is an elective, not a required course.

The Supplemental Instructional Materials Review committee, comprised of parents, teachers, administrators and a Board member had met during the school year to decide on various supplemental reading books which had been suggested for review by classroom teachers. In order for the books to be used in FUSD classrooms, Board Policy states that the Committee and the Board of Education must approve them.

During the meeting, Washington High School teacher Teri Roah Hu, who had re-submitted for consideration, the main book in question, Bastard out of Carolina, spoke out against censorship and was adamant in support of the book. (In 2010, the book had been rejected by the Board as was Angels in America, in 2011.) Hu stated she would not let this issue go away without pursuing possible legal action.

Furthermore, Hu went on record stating that she believed the Board’s rejections [of the books] are motivated by homophobia.

In response, School Board President, Lily Mei remarked, “The Board can make its own decisions [regarding which materials it approves]. This is not censorship. It can be found in libraries, but I don’t want to make it mandated or required reading for the classroom.”

Several other community members spoke out against the book, citing its controversial subject matter including sexual violence which they felt was too explicit and unsuitable for students. Some speakers questioned the composition and number of committee members. Two other parents voiced a differing opinion, saying that having a trained teacher explain the work of literature, in a classroom setting, is the best way to understand the material.

Although the other books included on the committee’s list were approved by the Board, Lily Mei, Larry Sweeney and Ivy Wu voted specifically not to approve Bastard out of Carolina for the secondary supplemental reading list. Lara York and Bryan Gebhardt voted to approve the book. (The student representative Kyle O’Halloren voted in support of the book, but it did not count towards the official tally.) Therefore, by a 3 to 2 vote, the book was rejected.

A few days after the Board meeting, Hu voiced her thoughts on what had transpired.
“Did you know that up until April of 2005, AP Literature did not need to submit books for approval? AP teachers had free rein to teach whatever we deemed appropriate. The Board imposed unprecedented control over curricular decisions in 2005, and with their vote, starting in 2009, they’ve been using that policy change to inject their personal beliefs into our curriculum,” stated Hu. “I’ve resubmitted the rejected books repeatedly precisely because I don’t believe their votes have been ethical, and will continue to do so until we get board members who don’t use their power to subvert the mission of free public education,” Hu added.

Acacia O’Connor of the National Coalition Against Censorship submitted the following statement: “We’re concerned with this seemingly baseless rejection and singling out of recognized works of literature by the FUSD school board. These actions have First Amendment implications and we plan to continue to investigate the Board’s actions. Bastard out of Carolina was approved by the Instructional Materials Review Committee, comprised of qualified and experienced education professionals. The book is available in the school library and works with similar content being taught in the District. It appears that personal politics or prejudices are motivating this censorship. As a result Fremont students are being denied the ability to read culturally relevant literary works with the guidance of an enthusiastic and innovative teacher,” said O’Connor.

Asked for a response to the Board’s action, School Board President Lily Mei, issued the following:
“Each year our board is tasked to make a choice of whether or not to add books to our secondary supplemental reading list. I reviewed the books that were submitted for approval this year, and have concluded that Bastard out of Carolina is not a book with sufficient educational value to be added on the required reading list. Therefore, I (like the majority of the members of the Fremont School Board) voted not to approve this book for the secondary supplemental reading list. To the extent the teacher submitting this book for approval is looking for additional books to place on a reading list for a class, the current secondary supplemental reading list already contains well over 700 approved books providing an extensive list of topics, authors, and literary styles that are eligible to be assigned as required reading.

While the book has not been approved for the reading list from which it could have been assigned as required reading for a class, there has been no censorship of the book since it is available in the school libraries,” stated Mei.

As for Teri Hu, she says, “All books that are not required throughout the district are considered Supplemental Materials. This is another area where I’m frustrated by the Board’s rhetoric; they keep saying they’re uncomfortable “requiring” students to read these books, but nothing is required in the senior English curriculum except Hamlet or MacBeth! Everything else is either a site-specific requirement or assigned at the teacher’s discretion. My feelings? I’m disgusted and infuriated, basically. And not about to give up.”

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