Harford schools chief rescinds ruling, says teachers may use `Chocolate War'

Book allowed back in class

November 20, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun reporter

Harford County's school superintendent has reversed her decision to bar a provocative book from a course for high school freshmen, announcing yesterday that The Chocolate War can return to classrooms.

Under Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas' decision, teachers have the option of using The Chocolate War in a course that deals with harassment and decision-making but must get permission from all parents of students in a class. Teachers who choose to use The Chocolate War will have to inform the school system's central administrators.

Under these stipulations, the novel can, after a seven-month absence, be used again as required reading in a course designed to ease the transition to high school. But another book, Inventing Elliot, will be the standard assigned literary text, Haas said yesterday.

"The two books have different strengths," she said. "The Chocolate War has lots of action in it. ... Inventing Elliot is a great character study. Someone working with students in the standard format will be using Inventing Elliot."

"If a teacher has a group of students that need action to get engaged, they can select The Chocolate War if parents opt their kids into reading that book," she said.

The Chocolate War is the story of a boy who is bullied because he refuses to participate in his school's chocolate-selling fundraiser. Last year, it was assigned as required reading for a freshman course called "Living in a Contemporary World." The 1974 book by Robert Cormier was used in a part of the course that dealt with bullying and stress.

The novel is among the top 10 books receiving written requests that it be removed from public libraries and schools, according to the 2006 American Library Association list.

Last fall, about 40 parents, including Alicia Stewart, a parent from Forest Hill, complained about the book's vulgar language and homophobic slurs.

"Our 15-year-old daughter objected to the book," she said. "We don't let her watch R-rated movies, and we don't talk like that. She felt that her moral upbringing was violated."

Haas assembled a review committee of 15 teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members who reviewed the book. They recommended that The Chocolate War remain part of the course.

In April, Haas removed the book from the curriculum and formed another committee, made up of seven Harford County school media specialists and teachers who read other books and compared them to The Chocolate War. The committee reviewed five books, and narrowed the choices for the freshman course to The Chocolate War and Inventing Elliot, a 2004 novel by Graham Gardner. Gardner's novel is about a boy who, previously victimized by bullies, finds himself in the elite circle at his new school.

Harford County Board of Education President Thomas Fidler said he didn't see any problems with using The Chocolate War.

"I thought it reflected how adolescent children are brought up today," he said. "The context, verbiage use, you can hear it twofold at the mall. Studying the book in a context of a professional learning environment, I didn't have a problem with that."

Fidler said either book was sufficient for the course, but he said Inventing Elliot didn't have as "candid or colorful" language.

Board member Lee Merrell disagreed, maintaining that The Chocolate War should not be used at all.

"It's a great way of showing everything that's wrong so you can talk about it," he said. "But when did we pick a textbook by which one has the most wrongness in it? I don't know why the committee recommended the book in the first place.

"I sincerely hope no teacher decides to use it," he added. "If someone does do it, I hope every single parent in that class does not sign the form."

Board members had no authority over the matter, since the superintendent makes decisions on curriculum issues. Although the novel was discontinued from the freshman course, The Chocolate War was available to students at the schools' libraries.

madison.park@baltsun.com

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