Clarence Schools Urged to Ban Books

Note: At the February meeting of the Clarence school board, new trustee Jason Lahti asked the board to add an agenda item to the next meeting so that certain inappropriate materials could be discussed. The following letter was circulated to some Clarence families over the last week. The author of the letter is Lahti’s wife (and co-trustee Roger Showalter‘s sister). Shown below the embedded letter is the text of what I sent the board in advance of Monday’s school board meeting. In 1999, an effort was made to ban Harry Potter in Clarence schools. Now, we have a wider range of materials under attack. I think my letter speaks for itself, but I will add that banning books in schools is a 1st Amendment issue, and if this happens, I will gladly participate in an effort to bring a Constitutional challenge. Banning books is a much clearer and more present danger to education than anything relating to Common Core. 

Clarence School Curriculum Letter March 2014 by Alan Bedenko

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Ladies and Gentlemen of the Clarence School Board,  

It has come to my attention that there will be an agenda item and discussion at the March 10th board meeting to address concerns about certain curriculum materials having mostly to do with English, literature, and sex ed. 

I will be blunt – I do not want the school board legislating, micromanaging, or censoring the ELA curriculum or the ELA teachers. I think that these teachers are professionals, and that the school and parents can trust them to make appropriate curriculum choices in order to stimulate our children’s minds, turn them into critical thinkers, and make them hunger not only for knowledge, but curiosity. 

It is also my understanding that a policy exists whereby a parent can opt a child out of a particular reading assignment if they have a problem with the subject matter, so the issue is moot. 

The timing of this is highly suspect. I perceive this as a renewed attempt to divide this community into factions. Last year it was the budget. This year it’s the books. Next year it will perhaps be rejection of the science curriculum, or abstinence-only education. 

The NYS School Board Association maintains that a school board member must be, among other things, a “representative of the entire community”, and not just one faction of it. 

I do not support the censorship or banning of books, and I hope that in these lean budget times, the board would choose to avoid a costly and embarrassing constitutional challenge. 

1. CONFLICT OF INTEREST

There was an informational packet sent around to some town households in the last week or so, containing a call to action and a list of wildly extracontextual selections of themes and passages from books, essays, songs, and sex ed materials. It can be found at this link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/211263269/Clarence-School-Curriculum-Letter-March-2014 

That packet was prepared in part and sent by Ginger Lahti, who is the sister of one board member and the wife of another. There is a clear and obvious conflict of interest, and Mssrs. Showalter and Lahti must recuse themselves from any discussion or vote on this curriculum issue. This is not to punish Mrs. Lahti from speaking out – she has every right to petition the board for whatever she chooses. But because of the close family relationship she has with two members of the board, fairness and ethics demand recusal. The Board’s own Code of Conduct demands high ethical standards and mandates avoidance of even the appearance of impropriety. I believe that this issue meets that standard, and demands recusal.

2. SEX ED

There is a handout about avoiding STDs that Mrs. Lahti finds objectionable. Another one a “sexual behavior chart”. I’m willing to bet that there are more materials that exist within the sex education curriculum, some of which likely contain information about not having sex at all. But teaching abstention does not free our district from not teaching kids how to avoid sexual risk as part of the larger health curriculum. Some kids and parents are embarrassed to discuss matters such as these, but it’s critically important for adolescents to know how to avoid unwanted pregnancy and disease. None of it forecloses a household from emphasizing abstinence within its own personal morality. 

3. LITERATURE

10 of the 24 objectionable materials are for AP classes – college level reading. These kids are at an advanced, mature stage of their academic and chronological lives and can absolutely be trusted to read about adult themes. Likewise, the educators can be trusted to select age-appropriate literature, and the uncomfortable parts of these works can be addressed and discussed.

Where one finds only “male love dolls” and “flavored lubricant”, another finds a brilliant essay on life as a homeless person. Does Jonathan Swift’s classic 1729 satire, “A Modest Proposal”, which mocks the mistreatment of the poor, now merit censorship? After all, Swift is not really advocating for the consumption of infants. Steinem didn’t write about frathouse rape to excite people’s prurient interests, but to expound on the college experience that some women endure. The “Fraternity Drinking Songs” piece demonizes sexual harassment and mistreatment of women – people should be outraged by the song, not by the piece criticizing the song and its rape lyrics.

Farewell to Manzanar isn’t about glorifying child abuse, but one Japanese-American family’s experience in the WW2 internment camps. Those camps were a nightmare – we’re now going to censor teachers from teaching about American history, because some of it was unpalatable? Should we restrict anyone from using Anne Frank’s diary in the classroom because her experience is just too much? These allegedly serious concerns include – apropos of nothing – lyrics from a 5 year-old Nelly Furtado song, and a Donn Esmonde column.

It would appear that there are passages and themes picked out of a larger work, completely out of any meaningful context. They are selected by trained, educated, licensed, professional AP English or Literature teachers so my child can become a critical thinker, a lover of reading, and a lifelong learner.

4. CONCLUSION

Education shouldn’t just be the rote memorization of facts and figures. Sure, that’s part of it, but school exists also to teach kids how to think. Life and this world are full of things that make people uncomfortable. Thinking about things that make us uncomfortable is to be encouraged, not legislated away. Given that most kids in Clarence come from a home with involved parents and relative comfort, we should all make sure that they understand, appreciate, and think critically about the world and their role in it.

If layperson parents want to ensure that their children are exposed only to “wholesome” materials (the definition of which is wholly subjective), they have myriad ways to accomplish that goal. The problem is that Clarence is not some monolith – one person’s “wholesome” is another person’s unconstitutional censorship.

Mrs. Lahti’s call to action closed with a quote from utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill; “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men look on and do nothing.” Setting aside for a moment the insulting notion that Clarence’s ELA and health educators are “bad”, that one quote is – like all the others in that packet – wildly out of context and wholly inappropriate here. Mill’s 1867 inaugural speech at St. Andrew’s University is a great read, and a brilliant exposition on the purpose and value of higher education.

Mill went on to say that schools, “are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” He described education as many things, including, “the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising, the level of improvement which has been attained.” These children will go on to do great things, if we let them. Here’s a better Mill passage:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

— On Liberty, John Stuart Mill

Please do not censor or redact what is taught to kids in the schools. Our professional educators do not seek to add violent, or pornographic texts in order to elicit similar behaviors from students, or to excite some hypothetical violent or sexual propensities. These texts all serve a particular purpose, within their proper contexts, whereby our children are molded into adults capable of critical thought and rational analysis. Please don’t legislate someone else’s morality on our children, and breach the Constitution in the process. If parents truly fear exposing their children to the materials at issue here, they can take advantage of the existent opt-out provision. This is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Alan & Maryl Bedenko

Clarence Center

Parents of two children in the Clarence Central School District, and School Taxpayers

33 comments

  • What is distressing is that it seems like Mr. and Mrs. Lahti want to foment controversy where there should be none, positioning their concerns as good over bad parenting. Every teacher sends home a list of that will be covered in class. The school policy is that if a parent is uncomfortable with the text — discuss it with the teacher and an alternative text will be given.

    The policy works. It addresses the parents’ concerns and does not deny other students their constitutional rights. And as a parent i have a chance to read the texts ahead of time to discuss the material with my kids — to make sure my values and viewpoints are stressed.

    Unfortunately this policy does not allow Mr. and Mrs. Lahti to determine what MY children can read — and that seems to disturb them.

  • “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that
    it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing
    generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those
    who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the
    opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is
    almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier
    impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

    That concept should be applied broadly. The opposition to Arizona SB1062 violated the concept of liberty.

    BTW, good luck with School Board.

    • The opinion of Arizona liberty-seekers was in no way silenced. The ability of that opinion to be codified into policy, threatening not just an opposing opinion, but the equal protection of people under law, was rejected in democratic process. The “we must have the freedom to wield our liberty as a sword and shield” doctrine kicking around the right is abhorrent enough as thought. As policy, it is simply dangerous.

      • Picking and legislating when freedom is appropriate is the real danger. What you support amounts to indentured servitude.

        • No, it really doesn’t. There is no “association” inherent in providing services when you choose to provide such services to the public. If it presents a moral quandary to the person providing those services, then that person can freely choose something else.

          Especially in Arizona where discrimination based on sexual orientation is entirely legal, and where the law proposed was entirely superfluous. Government for the sake of government, almost.

          I applaud your hyperbole, however. It is stunning.

          • A business owner is an entrepreneur, one assumes the risks, both financial and otherwise, of running a business. That has nothing to do with serving the public. If a business owner wants to be a complete jerk, he runs the risk of losing his livelihood. A business owner exchanges goods, and or services, for money. That is a voluntary transaction between two individuals. A teacher, fireman, policeman, politician, etc., serves the public.

            “Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.”
            -Mahatma Gandhi

          • Does this mean in your utopia we can eliminate handicap accessibility?

          • I’m not advocating Utopia. That is left to those who profess to know when freedom is appropriate.

          • Fine, in your mind does a business have the right to deny access to the handicapped?

          • Reasonable accomodation, or more, is commendable. Those who don’t see fit are subject to the judgment of free men.

        • Also, I assume this means that you support gay marriage. Unless you’re picking and choosing when freedom applies.

      • There is no freedom of association without the freedom of disassociation.

    • “The opposition to Arizona SB1062 violated the concept of liberty.”

      If that’s your position, then the parents opposing the current textbooks would be violating the concept of liberty as well, correct?

      Or, to summarize more clearly, I think you mean to say “Anyone who has a position I disagree with is violating my liberty.” Which is, bluntly, a crock of shit.

      • I don’t support the blanket censorship of the books. I do support the individual right for parents to have their child opt-out of a particular book. My personal beliefs are not relevant to the concept of liberty. I don’t agree with business owners who refuse service based on religious grounds. I do agree with their right to do so. Ergo, my position is completely opposite of what you tried to portray. You appear to be the one having trouble reconciling liberty with your beliefs.

        • The parents have the right to opt-out. They do not have the right to dictate the terms of my morality to the school faculty or to ban books.

          • Yes, that is what I said.

          • Alan,
            I’m truly troubled by the timing of Lahti’s letter. After last year’s mud wrestle and the Taxpayer’s Association’s switching on the turnout and then turning it off, something stinks here. Parents had access to these materials a while ago and, now, when people agreed to tone down the rhetoric going into May, we have Lahti’s letter. Theoretically, Mr. Lahti had to know that Mrs. Lahti had objections and I would assume the same thing of Mr. Showalter. Why didn’t they bring it to the public’s attention sooner? The district is trying to put its programming back together, it has a budget to shape in the face of constantly shifting messages from Albany, it has to prepare for the upcoming Common Core assessments and find monies for unfunded mandates, and instead of using options already built in for parents who object to any dimension of a particular course of study, Mrs. Lahti choses a flamethrower.

          • Many people have been discussing why this, why now. I am not clever or devious enough to figure out what the ulterior motive is here, except for it to be a distraction.

        • Liberty, as defined by Websters, is :

          – the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely
          – the power to do or choose what you want to

          – a political right

          Using those definitions, which I would say are accurate and reasonable, then it’s correct that :

          – Those who supported and opposed SB1062 were able to do so, and their liberty was not violated.
          – Those who object to the books have the ability to opt-out of the title, thus not violating their liberty.
          – Those who want certain books removed for ALL students are depriving OTHERS of their power to choose what is correct for themselves, ergo violating their liberty.

          • People supporting SB1062 are potentially forced to serve others. That is indentured servitude. Freedom of association requires the freedom of disassociation, you can not have one without the other.

          • That is not indentured servitude.

            Take care Mr. Rebmann.

          • It is very hard to reconcile Michaels views with reality. It is a Libertarian square peg trying to fit in a societal round hole. But I always appreciate his views.

          • The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.

  • Having taught in the Clarence School system for 23 years and having had a textbook rejected by the board for my 60’s course (because the word “orgy” was mentioned in a confessional in the appendix of the book), I have something to say about the efforts of Mrs. Lahti. First and foremost, I agree with Alan regarding the necessity of Mr. Lahti and Mr. Showalter to recuse themselves in this matter. And as they recuse themselves, they ought to caution their fellow board members and the public that it’s an easy segue going from critiquing teaching materials to critiquing and then pillorying the teachers choosing the materials. Every effort needs to be made to stop Board meetings from becoming Kangaroo Courts. Second, I am also concerned about how this might show up in the bewildering world of teacher evaluation. To me, one of the most important things a teacher can do is to show the world in all its brutishness, and how art, literature, science, and music respond to it. The irony here is staggering. It’s alright to show videos of the bombing and aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, and 9/11, but it causes squirming, blushing, and squeamishness when schools are forced into doing sex ed because parents won’t. Disclosure: I sat on a Board for three years and I was dead set against sex ed period. Even our monsignor wanted a rigorous sex ed program. Later on, I learned that my students’ parents don’t do their jobs regarding this matter and that kids were learning the ways of the world in far worse environments than school. Third, Mrs. Lahti’s egregious excision of quotes from context smacks of deception, premeditation, and political gamesmanship. She wants to “bombard” Board members as well as Geoff Hicks. Perhaps, this is a bit of conflation and getting off the topic, and I apologize, but I’ve noticed that ALEC has written a bill for New York State regarding the teaching of American history. Clarence is known as a breeding ground for AFP and one of ALEC’s strategies is to attack curricula and propose its own. Hope it’s not going in this direction.

  • I never knew that Clarence had become a hotbed/hideout for the Moral Minority….I think Kathy from Williamsville might want to think about moving there…..

  • The Lahtis betray a fundamental misunderstanding about what literature is supposed to be for.

    Example – they’re upset about the rape scene in Speak. Speak is a book for young adults, the morals of which boil down to “sexual assault is always the fault of the attacker and not the victim, the victim should never be demonized, the victim should be given help if they ask for it, and the attacker should be punished to the full extent of the law.” I daresay that’s a helpful thing to read for teens in general. If the Lahtis have their way, that’s one potential avenue of, at the very least, emotional support that has now disappeared for a distressed and needy kid. Manzanar is distressing, yes, but it’s a thing that happened, and to delete it from the curriculum is to lie about history. Cormac McCarthy’s violence and grimness isn’t gratuitous; he has a point to make, and a tenth-grader dissecting the specifics of his prose will learn how to critically and analytically read, a skill that is absolutely useful for life as an adult.

    To what end is this bowdlerizing? The Lahtis’ kids are going to go out into the world eventually. Pretty soon, if they’re taking AP classes. Isn’t it best that they go out informed citizens, armed with the tools to make sense what the world is about?

    • ChristineK/ChrissieK

      The woman is Mormon and she brought members from her church with her to the meeting to support her.

  • Maybe if whoever put together this pamphlet was taught these texts in school, they would have gotten the author’s names correct. “Snow Falling on Cedars” is by Guterson, not with two t’s. “Persepolis” is by Marjane Satrapi, not Saxrapi. This lack of attention to detail is sad if this pamphlet is meant to be a convincing argument aimed at persuading us. Just sad.

  • ChristineK/ChrissieK

    Don’t know if this is the basis for Mrs. Lahti’s complaint, but according to her facebook page, she is Mormon.

  • My Antonia should be banned because it blows. Love the classic dumbass take on Swift’s Modest Proposal too without the historical context that it was a satire aimed at Brits as they allowed Irish to starve to death while shiploads of food rotted in harbors. I can’t believe Huckleberry Finn didn’t make the list. Anyone hurt? No’m, killed a nigger. Well that’s good then because people do get hurt you know…How did that escape the net of this 21st century Bowdler? If I call Ginger a high strung, repressive cul de sac twat will I be banned in Clarence too? So be it.

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