Lessons in Trust and Respect

November 19, 1994

Do children need to read and read aloud obscene language and racial epithets in order to understand the realities of "street life" and the underworld?

That's one of the questions raised by parents' recent discovery that freshmen at Aberdeen High School were required to read a controversial novel about teen-age drug use in the inner city.

The incident indicates a need for Harford school officials to more closely monitor teachers' reading assignments. The English teacher who chose the book ignored established rules to inform parents of the controversial assignment and not to read passages aloud in class; she also chose a work that is more than two decades old for the purpose of describing today's unpleasant "realities."

Equally disturbing is the explanation by the school system that the book in question reflected "real life" that could only be expressed by "street language," when the system itself lists acceptable alternative books on the subject.

Use of the novel, "A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich," was approved as supplemental reading years ago by the department chairman, school principal and central school system officials. But parents were to be notified beforehand, with the option of having their children read an alternate book. This important step in building trust with the parents was ignored this year and also last year when the same teacher assigned the same book, school officials admit.

When schools require students to read books with offensive and obscene passages in order to address a sensitive subject, when they choose books that may have negative images of certain racial groups, they are under the strongest obligation to follow their own guidelines. There exists a nagging distrust of school curriculum objectives by a number of parents that needs to be dispelled by consistent adherence to rules and guidelines.

When teachers choose such books to discuss, they should ask if the book is sufficiently relevant and reflective of today's realities. Thomas De Quincy's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" may be acceptable for its 19th century literary value, for example, but certainly not for its relevance to contemporary drug addiction.

We agree with Harford school authorities that discussing sensitive societal topics in the classroom is valuable, that the message value of certain books may outweigh their use of objectionable language. But parents' rights must be respected and guidelines observed if mutual respect is to be achieved.

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