(Ed.'s note: At press time, there were unconfirmed reports that the teacher who selected the book in question was withdrawing it. The topic should be discussed at the BOE meeting on Oct. 17.)
Numerous Port Washington residents -- including teachers, parents, and students -- expressed concern and disagreement with the Board of Education's recent action to vote against a book recommended for use in the high school, a decision that was changed to allow a committee of educators to review the selection. The book in question, Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, reportedly contains a page which has a crude diagram of a homemade bomb. While community members seemed to understand the board's concern about school safety, especially in the shadow still cast by the Columbine High School tragedy, most indicated that they still believed that decisions about course texts are best left to educators, and felt it might set a dangerous precedent when it came to the approval of books in the future.
Teacher and PW Teachers' Association president Mary Anne Cariello said that members of the Association's executive council were, in general, disappointed about the school board's action. "Our first hope is that the board changes its mind," she stated. "That book went through all the proper channels ... We have a problem if we try to get rid of everything that has any violence." Moreover, teachers in other school districts on LI were "shocked," Ms. Cariello related. "They can't believe it. It does not put us in a positive light."
Many of Ms. Cariello's points were repeated by others. North Shore High School teacher and former co-president of the Schreiber HSA, Anita Rabin-Havt, asserted that educators must be trusted in these matters. "There is always someone who can find something offensive to them in a book," said Ms. Rabin-Havt, "and there'll be nothing left to read; great works of literature have violence too." She added that the Alvarez novel is used in the North Shore school district. "I'd condemn someone if they put it on an elementary school reading list, but in a high school class, you have the opportunity to discuss these issues," she explained. PW parent June Burden discussed the matter with her tenth grader, Erica, and her daughter's friends, and came to similar conclusions. All were in agreement that the decision seemed to be "selling the kids short, thinking that they aren't able to discriminate about what is being presented. If the teacher talks about it in class, it can actually be a deterrent, rather than an incentive."
Schreiber senior Ian Jay said thoughtfully, "I disagree with the idea of banning books, but the school board does have the power to review books, and I accept that. But the decision shouldn't be based on half of one page, or just the quality of the book based on one page." He found it objectionable that most school board members hadnít read the book, and added, "I don't want someone not involved in education to make a decision." Another high school senior, who asked that his name not be used, had strong feelings about the implications of the board's actions. "The purpose of school is to teach students, to maximize their knowledge. To limit their access to an acclaimed work of literature is antithetical to the goal of educational institutions, and is a flagrant assault on the guaranteed constitutional rights of students. This is a sad day for education," he asserted.
But Board of Education President Richard Sussman explained the board's decision as strictly a "safety issue." He also views the act of book banning as different from the board's action in this case, which he considers carrying out the "normal approval process." "We agree there's value in this book," he continued. "By not approving it, we aren't forcing (students) to read it ... We were doing our job ... Nor are we in violation of the Supreme Court's decisions in this area."
Members of the PW community are not alone in scrutinizing this situation. On 10/1, The New York Times included an article on this occurrence in PW. In addition, Mr. Sussman received a letter from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), urging the school board to "exercise perspective and restraint in judging the value of In the Time of the Butterflies," a book, they point out, that was selected as an American Library Association Notable Book as well as a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee. According to the NYCLU, the novel is a "gripping story of three sisters active in the underground resistance movement opposing the dictatorship of Trujillo ... in context, (the diagram) is appropriate to the story of a revolutionary movement organizing to overthrow an oppressive dictator, reminiscent of the American colonies organizing against King George."
In their correspondence, the NYCLU also states that "no court has ever held a book responsible for a crime," and have noted especially "harsh punishment imposed on children for engaging in activities that would never have raised an eyebrow before Columbine." The NYCLU, in its letter, argued, "To substitute another novel in this situation would be self-censorship, a concession to panic and a disservice to the students and the community."
A recurrent theme in comments from residents was a fear of stricter, more frequent censorship when it came to reading materials, as the aftermath of removing even one book. "For every new book, are we going to start dissecting every page?" asked Ms. Rabin-Havt. "When you start down this road, there's no turning back."