Superintendent pulls award-winning novel about bullying after parents complain of vulgar language, homophobic slurs

Book removed from Harford class

April 10, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Responding to complaints from about 40 parents, the Harford County schools superintendent has decided to remove a book from the high school curriculum, saying its message on the dangers of bullying is overshadowed by instances of vulgar language including homophobic slurs.

In a memo on the county school system's Web site, Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said she will announce to the school board tonight that the novel The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier will not be permitted in a social studies curriculum for county ninth-graders.

It is the first time a book intended for use in Harford schools has been removed, according to Haas' memo. A school system spokesman said yesterday that Haas declined requests for comment.

"This decision was a very difficult one," said Mark M. Wolkow, president of the school board. "I have every confidence in the superintendent's process in making the decision."

In August, teachers sent home a syllabus for a new class called Living in a Contemporary World, created to help students with the transition from middle school to high school.

The curriculum included the 1974 novel, which tells the story of a boy who is bullied because he refuses to participate in his school's chocolate-selling fundraiser.

The book, which has won numerous awards, has been commended as a realistic portrayal of the dangers of bullying and harassment.

But several parents who objected to the some of the content in the book began complaining to school officials through phone calls, e-mails and appearances at school board meetings.

Parents protest

Objections raised at a board meeting last fall included concerns about profanity, sexual content and references to homosexuality, and worries that the book promotes bullying, according to minutes from board meetings.

John Wagner, whose son attends Fallston High, was among the parents who spoke out against the book at a board meeting last fall. He said the mere fact that the book generated controversy meant it was better to remove it from the curriculum.

"When I spoke at the board meeting last year, I said [that] we don't tell our children to go out at midnight because nothing good can come from it," the 51-year-old Army officer and Bel Air resident said yesterday.

"Offering a controversial book as part of the curriculum seemed to be a similar situation. I'm not an advocate for stopping free speech, but I am very pleased the school system isn't advocating the book as part of the curriculum," Wagner said.

Others at meetings spoke in support of keeping the book, pointing out that students in the class could opt out of having to read the book if their parents so chose.

It is not the first time the novel has sparked controversy: The Chocolate War is on the American Library Association's list of the top 10 challenged books.

"I knew going into it that the book was controversial," said George Toepfer, the supervisor of social studies for county schools who included the book in the curriculum.

"It's a dark novel because at the end, the good guys don't seem to win. But I thought it had a strong lesson to teach students," he said.

Some parents expressed frustration yesterday with the superintendent's move.

"I was disappointed and angry when I heard about the superintendent's decision to ban the book," said Laura Krebs, a Bel Air resident and mother of three children in county schools.

"I don't think [Hass] put a lot of faith in the parents who made the decision to let their children read the book. It allows for discussion, and no good comes from not talking about something."

Book in libraries

Though the book will be banned from use in classes, it still can be included among collections in school and public libraries, said Jennifer Ralston, materials management administrator for the county public library.

When the issue broke, demand for the book shot up, she said.

"We had so many people reading the book that we had to order more copies," Ralston said, adding that there are 51 copies of the book in the library system.

Haas' memo said she intends to form another committee to search for an alternate book for the unit and report its decision by May 2008.

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