The following report contains material that may not be appropriate for young children to read. In placing this on my website, I had to weigh the need for parents to know the intricacies of this situation against the graphic content. If this battle is to be won, parents must know the extent of the material to which their child may be exposed in order for them to make the decision on whether it is appropriate. For that reason, I have published this report as is.
Sexually Explicit Material in the Classroom
We are parents in Stevenson-Carson School District No. 303 who have been involved with several other parents in a raging battle at our high school over sexually explicit reading material and speech subject matter being taught in the Junior Honor's English classroom. It has been recommended to us that we contact you since you track school-related issues.
First, we will share the good news. After a heated four-month fight, the school board voted unanimously on July 8 to remove the book, Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson from the curriculum because it was not age-appropriate, and to require teachers to send home detailed parental permission slips before violent or sexually graphic subject matter was read by students. The permission slip requires an excerpt of the potentially offensive movie or book and an explanation of its educational value and why it was chosen for use. If a parent does not sign the permission slip, the child is automatically given an alternate reading assignment that also must be listed.
The bad news is that the school refuses to recognize the out-of-control behavior of this teacher or to discipline her and the high school principal for their outrageous behavior (explained later). Our sons also lost credit for their Honor's English class when we pulled them from the class. They also lost the graduation award that accompanies taking the honor's program. We, as the parents of the boys, have engaged an attorney to fight for this issue since we feel the boys should not be penalized for the behavior of the teacher.
Probably the best way to explain all this is to start at the beginning:
(In the words of RaeLynn Gill) — On Sunday, March 7, 1999, my 17-year-old son, Jesse, shared with me that one of the students in his Junior Honor's English classroom had given a speech about the erection angle of the male penis as he ages and the frequency rate of orgasms. The student had used a pencil to visually demonstrate the penile angle. Jesse also said other impromptu speeches in his class centered on living with gay parents, breast nipples, oral sex… Very disturbed by this information, I called my good friend, Jean Foster, whose son, Tony, was also in that class. She talked with Tony and called me back shortly to tell me about the book they were reading in class that had several very graphic sex scenes in it. I asked Jesse for the book and was horrified to find sexual acts described in minute detail, including those in a very steamy shower and on a sailing boat. Jesse admitted that he knew he should not have been reading the book. His justification for doing so was that, for a hormonal teenager, the sex scenes were pretty good. Later on the teacher would use that against me in her argument to keep the book, saying that Jesse did not have a problem with it, that the problem was mine, and that he should, therefore, be allowed to read it, and his First Amendment Rights protected.
After discussing the issue with Jesse and my husband, Forrest, I called the school principal the next morning, Monday, March 8, and that's where my nightmare began. First off, he told me the book was a beautiful piece of literature and that I was taking the sex scenes out of context. I replied that it was not age-appropriate and that sex was sex and minor children should not be exposed to it, especially without express parental consent. The principal then told me I was ignorant for not reading the book when I received the permission slip which listed this book along with 19 other great classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird. He reminded me that I had signed a permission slip that said the students would be reading "somewhat controversial" materials. I told the principal that sexually explicit material was more than just somewhat controversial and that, while I admitted to being remiss in not checking out all the books on the list, the school needed to have a more detailed permission slip in place that would specifically notify busy parents if violent or sexual subject matter was being taught, and allow them to question it or opt out. The principal told me that I was the only parent who had objected to the book in the two years it had been used in the classroom, and I told him that many parents probably didn't even know about its content, but that I planned to enlighten them!
Jean called me after I got home to tell me that she, too, had lodged a complaint against the book and gotten the same treatment from the principal. The principal called me later that day to say that he had set up a meeting for that Friday, March 12, for both our families with him and the teacher although he would not allow us to all meet together because that would be too "overwhelming" for the teacher.
That same evening of March 8, my son informed me that the teacher had stormed into the classroom that afternoon and told the students that two of them had upset their parents by sharing classroom information and "ruined the fun for everyone." She proceeded to tell them that the sex in the book was "good and clean" because it was married sex (not true in several scenes) and that she wanted to run an "uncensored" classroom and keep its happenings between the students and herself. She reminded them that she had asked the entire class if anyone was uncomfortable reading a book with sex in it and nobody had raised their hand. The teacher then singled out Jesse and Tony so the class would know who had spoken to their parents. When I called Tuesday morning to speak with the principal about this highly inappropriate discussion, he talked with the teacher and she denied the conversation had taken place. Later, she would admit to a portion of that conversation and submit a written statement that verified she wanted to run an uncensored classroom.
Harassment toward Jesse and Tony began that day and continued throughout the remainder of the week as students chose sides on the issue. This harassment included a mock trail about parents banning books and students patting Jesse on the head while it took place. The subject "walrus nipples" was drawn from the impromptu speech box and the teacher laughingly told the student that he had better be prepared to defend her if he used that subject because someone might tell their parents. Everyone looked at Jesse and Tony. On Thursday, March 11, we went to the superintendent who ordered the discussions to cease, but they did not. I attempted to sit in on the class on Thursday and was denied entrance by the principal who told me I needed to make an appointment first.
Jesse decided to sign a statement saying that the teacher had indeed had the classroom conversation with her students and several other students also signed it that day. Then a group of students, wanting to support the teacher, drafted another statement to sign that, even though they did not realize it, also verified the inappropriate discussion had taken place, although the content on this statement varied a little with Jesse's – such as the students said she told them not to leave the book laying around where younger siblings could get their hands on it (Jesse and the others claimed she told them not to leave it laying around where their parents would see it). Jesse was given the other statement to put with his and now I had handwritten documentation from 18 of the 22 students in the classroom that the teacher was lying. I was also later given the grading slip of the student who made the erection speech and it had a smiley face on it next to the comment, "Great use of the pencil as a visual aid for the penis angle." The girl's highest score was a perfect 20 for "good use of gestures." The principal later acknowledged, in front of witnesses, that the teacher had lied about the pencil being used and the content of this speech.
Forrest and I cancelled our meeting with the principal and teacher because we felt, at that point, it would be fruitless, that we would try to reach our school board instead. Jean and her husband, Tim, decided to go ahead and meet and were given the written statement by the teacher about the classroom discussion that the principal did not seem to think out of the ordinary. Now we had the student statements to compare with hers and there were very distinct differences. We turned these over to the superintendent and the only comment he made was that he would "support his teacher."
On Monday, we, and the Foster's made the decision to pull our sons out of the class and put them in an independent study program to ensure their emotional and mental safety.
That's how our battle began. During the past four months we launched an educational campaign for parents about what was happening in that classroom and passed out hundreds of copies of the sex scenes in the book. We were accused by the local newspaper of acting like naughty children that were showing a dirty magazine around the locker room. In turn, I wrote an editorial challenging the school to buy space in the local newspaper and print the entire last paragraph of page 91 in the book if they felt the sex was age-appropriate. They never responded. It was interesting, though, how they tried to shut us down when we read the book out loud at two meetings! The school and school board defended the teacher, claiming she had just made a "mistake." However, in May, she allowed a dropout student, who was a recovering heroin addict, come into two of her classrooms and read a poem with such obscenities in it that parents brought it up at the school board meeting. Finally, she was given a written letter of discipline in her "working file" on that one incident. But the school refuses to do anything about her treatment of our sons in her classroom, saying that we caused the situation by making an issue of the book. The teacher did resign this spring under pressure and is relocating to New Mexico where she hopes people are more enlightened!
It took us two months to figure out that we were being procedurally blocked by the superintendent from resolving these issues before our school board. In May it finally became apparent to us that we would never get through the red tape because they were just trying to make things so difficult we would go away. We responded by organizing a community meeting that drew more than 200 people (there are only 400 students in our high school), including two Senators and a Congressional Representative. In fact, the controversy drew our local Sheriff, County Commissioners, and Prosecutor. The school staff came to defend the book and were hostile from the moment they walked in the door. I should note here that, as our curriculum battle heated up in March, we found out that there were a group of concerned parents also fighting the school over disciplinary actions that were either illegal or failed to follow due process. These included having students fill out a sheriff's department report form that checking off the suspect box for "crimes" such as swearing in class. We banded together and wrote a letter outlining the principal's code of conduct violations and included 18 pieces of documentation and a support letter signed by 42 people. We asked for a special hearing before the school board but they denied that request and re-routed all the parents back to the superintendent even though most all had already gone through that channel unsuccessfully.
These parents were also involved in organizing our community meeting. At the meeting, the school board (to whom we had issued handwritten invitations) promised to be more accessible but the superintendent again convinced them that he should handle all problems and they refused to take independent action.
Tim Foster and Forrest are now running for school board since it has become very clear that we need to replace the current members. We are also legally intending to get our sons Honor's English credit restored and just yesterday had an interview with The Columbian (August 4 issue; outcome uncertain) to help in our fight to raise public awareness that our school is very, very troubled.
It was so horrifying to start this battle off because it was an issue that should have been easy to solve and we felt so confused and unbelieving about what was happening.
A few comments and questions regarding the above incident.
This type of sexually explicit material in the classrooms is a direct result of the passage and implementation of ESHB 1209, laws of 1993, in Washington State, establishing a performance-based system of education. This system has removed accountability to parents for what happens to their children in the classroom. As shown in this email, and repeated in other instances, those elected to represent the people of the school district — the school board members — are no longer representing the people in these matters, as they should be.
The people of this state, as taxpayers, as property owners, are being forced, through taxation, to support the public (aka, government) schools. Yet when parents expose this type of conduct, this type of material, in the classroom, they are systematically labeled as "right wing religious fanatics", or terms synonymous therewith. Were parents to subject their children to this type of sexually explicit, pornographic material, in the home, those parents would be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, would be labeled unfit parents, and would have their children removed from their home and placed in foster care by Child Protective Services. What is the difference between a teacher doing this in a classroom and parents doing this in their home?
Not only this, but the conduct engaged in by this teacher, is the classic behavior of a sexual predator. Yet this teacher was allowed to go free to victimize other children in another state? Why? The obvious answer is that the primary concern of this school district, once this issue came to light, was to cover its tracks instead of being concerned with what was in the best interests of the children. No reasoning adult would ever consider the conduct of this teacher to be in the best interests of the children. Beyond this, the message to these parents from the school district is that they, as parents, have no right to be concerned about what their children are exposed in the school when it is very clear to the reasoning adult that the school is acting in an irresponsible and unlawful manner. What is the difference between taking a group of hormonally charged teenagers to the local porn shop and what this teacher exposed these kids to in the classroom, in the name of education? Is it only child abuse if the child is exposed to this type of sexually explicit material at home? Is there a double standard that says parents shall not … but it's okay for schools to do it in the name of education?
Why should these parents be faced with the situation of having to sue the school district for monetary damages to force the school district to be accountable for what happens in classrooms, especially when those same parents are being forced to pay for that school through their taxes? It is quite obvious that this school does not believe that it has a responsibility to these parents; that it believes it has the right to do anything to these kids that it chooses, without consequence. It is equally obvious that this school has no real concern for the children, that the school is only concerned about maintaining its power and position.
Doesn't this say that the government schools believe that children belong to them? All we hear is how Washington State is "raising the standards". This is how they raise the standards — subjecting children to porn in the name of education in classrooms? Washington State just established the A+ Commission to hold schools accountable. Accountable for what? Where is accountability to the parents, to the taxpayers? Quite obviously, there is none, accountability meaning being complaint to the system.
This is outrageous!
Lynn M Stuter
Compare this with what happened in Texas over this same book.