An advisory committee voted yesterday to recommend removal of a book on the occult from Howard County elementary school libraries after hearing a Columbia mother's complaint that it was a virtual "how-to" manual on demonic worship.
The school system committee took its vote behind closed doors after hearing testimony from Karen Trotsky about "Curses, Hexes, & Spells," a book by Daniel Cohen that is available in the libraries of four county elementary schools and two middle schools.
People close to the committee, who asked not to be identified, said its members voted to recommend the book's removal from elementary libraries, but for its retention in middle and high schools.
At the same time, the advisory group voted to retain "The Devil Did It," a children's book by Susan Jeschke that had prompted a written complaint from another parent.
Ms. Trotsky, who testified for 20 minutes before the committee in the Board of Education public hearing room, said her 10-year-old son was given "Curses, Hexes, & Spells" by a library official at Thunder Hill Elementary when "he asked for a book about Halloween to do research for costumes."
She said he drew a circle in the driveway and placed candles inside the circle as he followed the book's directions on how to cast a spell.
"Children are influenced by these things, and the occult is as much a threat as alcohol and drugs," Ms. Trotsky said.
She said she would "take this issue to the highest levels" to get the Cohen book removed from elementary school shelves, but "will have to wait until my son gets to middle school before I decide what to do on that level."
She said she did not object to the book being in a public library because she scrutinizes what books her son checks out. "In the school library, I do not see what he gets out and perhaps reads out of my sight," she said.
The author of the book said it has been the object of controversy in at least two other states. The Frederick County school board voted earlier this year to retain it in middle school libraries after a controversy there.
Mr. Cohen said he was concerned that the removal of the book from a school library amounted to "censor ship." He maintained that his book "explains a primitive way of thinking" and debunks it.
However, Ms. Trotsky told the advisory committee she considered it "a how-to book. . . . I felt the book teaches how to go about demonic worship." She added that "it is a very dangerous thing to have in the hands of young children."
"The Devil Did It," available in the school system only at the Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia, prompted a parent's written objection that it showed the devil as "a benign or friendly force." A reviewer had termed the book an "affectionate fantasy."
School officials initially said the deliberations of the committee would be open to the press and public. However, Associate Superintendent James McGowan said yesterday that there was concern that extensive coverage "would turn the deliberation into a circus and take the attention away from the issues" -- so a decision was made to hold deliberations behind closed doors. He said advisory groups can deliberate in private under the state's open meeting law.
Dr. McGowan said the Board of Education would not release the findings of the committee, which includes parents, students and teachers, until Monday and that Associate Superintendent Joan Palmer would decide whether the books would stay in the school libraries.
Her decision can be appealed first to the superintendent and then to the school board.
The issue is expected to provoke debate among school system administrators on First Amendment issues.
H. Thomas Walker, director of media services for the county school system, said in an interview that "there are protests against witchcraft and [the] occult sweeping the country, and a minority of citizens want nothing written about the occult in the schools."