The wrong lesson

April 12, 2007

The decision by Harford County's schools superintendent and its Board of Education to remove a controversial book, The Chocolate War, from the curriculum of a ninth-grade course is regrettable, to say the least. What started out as an admirable effort to teach young people about real-life issues has become an unfortunate lesson in cowardice.

To help with the often-difficult transition from middle school to high school, Harford school administrators designed a course for ninth-graders called Living in a Contemporary World. Part of the course dealt with bullying and its destructive effects, which are sharply illustrated in the 1974 novel by award-winning author Robert Cormier.

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas was informed before the course was introduced last August that inclusion of The Chocolate War - which has long been controversial for some vulgar and graphic language - could provoke parental objections. So parents had to agree to let their children read the book, and students who were not allowed to read it were given an alternate selection.

Despite all the preparation, when some parents protested against the book, Ms. Haas quickly announced that a review committee including teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members would help determine whether The Chocolate War should remain as part of the course. In February, the committee unanimously recommended that it should.

But Ms. Haas unilaterally decided that the controversy over the book made it unusable at this time, took bullying and harassment out of the LICW course and wants another committee to take another year to come up with an alternative literary selection. On Tuesday night, the school board withheld comment.

What a copout. Ms. Haas has shown neither leadership nor faith in her own established procedures. In addition to the review committee's unanimous recommendation, there were plenty of parents and students who spoke out in favor of the book, a classic among young-adult novels. But Ms. Haas ignored all that.

This should have been a case of standing against censorship. Instead, Ms. Haas and the school board have provided Harford students with a perfect lesson on the worst aspects of bullying.

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