A School District Bans ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ After Parents Complain… but the Fight’s Not Over Yet

If you’re a middle school student — or any student, really — you probably prefer reading a book that you chose instead of one your teacher chose for you. So, at Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois (not far from where I live), the English teachers include in their curriculum the opportunity for students to choose their own books to read, discuss, and analyze.

This past December, one group of students chose to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, a book (and popular movie) about a teenager named Charlie who has to deal with issues that are pretty heavy (and all too relatable) for any adolescent. It covers sex, suicide, drugs, crushes, and so much more — which is a large part of why so many students are drawn to it:

The district has a policy when it comes to books chosen by students, and the teachers let the parents know about it early in the school year. In essence, it says that parents have final say when it comes to their child’s independent reading: If parents feel a book is inappropriate, their child doesn’t have to read it. The teacher will then help the child find a different book. There’s no penalty for that, of course.

Sounds simple enough.

Because this particular book has some mature themes, the teacher told the students that they should get permission from their parents before tackling it, reinforcing the policy already in place.

That’s when one of the student’s parents flipped out.

Once they realized what was in the book, not only did they not want their daughter reading it, they wanted it banned entirely. They wanted to make sure no child had access to this book at the school. And they may have succeeded… but it’s not too late to do something about it.

Yesterday, the Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins alerted her members to the controversy with all the demonizing and spin you might expect from a group like hers. IFI fully supports the book banning. In Higgins’ version of the story, the English teachers are basically a radical group of people who want to teach kids about deviant sex, promote homosexuality, and turn the students into raging liberals like themselves.

In reality, the teachers have the best intentions of the students at heart — and they want the kids to read books that talk about issues that are relevant to them, even if those issues may be difficult to discuss. But it’s the reality the students live in so it’s worth talking about.

I spoke with one of the teachers involved in this incident last night for over an hour to get a fuller picture of this story. By piecing together the two competing narratives, I think I can offer a better picture of what’s going on that anything IFI spits out. I’m going to quote from Higgins’ screed and interject some additional information that might be helpful. Afterwards, I’ll talk about what we can do to fix this problem.

Higgins’ post is below. Other than the names, all the bold-faced emphases are my own:

Last December, students in Tina Booth’s 8th grade literacy class at Hadley Middle School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois were divided into small groups and assigned to choose a book to read. One group chose the infamous The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which set in motion a controversy that persists today.

When students asked Booth about the book, she gave it a glowing recommendation. After parents expressed opposition to it, Principal Christopher Dransoff proposed the option of teachers in the future sending out permission slips about controversial books prior to allowing students to read them, a compromise parents were willing to accept.

Dransoof soon discovered, however, that the majority of 8th grade literacy teachers would not accept such a compromise, apparently believing that such prior notification and parental permission constituted censorship and an implicit indictment of their expert judgment.

It wasn’t a “glowing recommendation.” Actually, Booth told the kids there was mature content in the book, so they should get approval from their parents first (per the district policy). One student’s parents opposed the book and, normally, that would have been enough for the teacher to work with the student on selecting something else to read or placing her in a different group. (Not kicking her out of the classroom, as Higgins suggests)

Before that could happen, though, the principal suggested a quick fix to the problem: What if teachers just sent out a permission slip with every book chosen by the kids? If the parents signed off on every book, their bases would be covered, right? The problem with that idea is that the teachers have over 80 students, each reading approximately 25 books over the course of a year. It’s a logistical nightmare to have slips for every kid for every book. The system that’s in place — a blanket policy that parents are made aware of earlier in the year — makes much more sense. No wonder the teacher didn’t like the “compromise.” It wasn’t about censorship of parents or an indictment of their judgment.

In any case, the parents didn’t like the suggestion of having their daughter replace that book with another one. They wanted it banned for good. So they took their case to the school board. The Glen Ellyn School District 41 Board of Education created an ad hoc committee consisting of parents, faculty members, literacy specialists, administrators, etc. to make a recommendation about what to do. The committee listened to what parents Jennifer and Brian Bradfield and teacher Tina Booth had to say. In the report of the meeting, it’s noted that Booth explained how the book was chosen by the students (not her) and how they had to obtain the book on their own (since there were no copies of it in her classroom).

The parents didn’t care. It was noted in the press that the Bradfields told the school board: “Our innocent child has already been tainted” by the book. (Riiiiight.)

I love this quotation from one of the teachers involved because it really gets to the heart of what’s going on here:

“Like it or not, your daughters and sons in eighth grade heard the word ‘blowjob,’” [Lynn] Bruno said. “I’ve been at this for 30 years… What they are exposed to in terms of dialogue, in terms of media… I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s (out) there.”

She added books like Perks of Being a Wallflower are valuable because of the lessons students can learn from characters’ decisions in difficult situations.

“I have children in my classroom who need this knowledge now because they’re facing those issues… You cannot take away from children who need to have those conversations… just because it upsets some other children.”

Ultimately, the committee decided that the book should remain an option for students who wanted to read it. They also suggested that parents be given a letter each trimester reminding them that they should be aware of their kids’ book choices. Better than just the beginning-of-the-year reminder and far better than a permission slip for every book.

Usually, school boards take the advice of a committee of experts.

In this case, they rejected the advice completely and banned the book in the process.

Back to Higgins:

This intransigence on the part of the teachers resulted in parents pursuing the issue with the school board which voted 4-2 to remove the book from the middle school, which, in turn, intensified the community controversy. With two newly elected members, the school board is scheduled to revisit its decision at its next meeting on Monday, June 10.

The board’s decision raised the ire of presumptuous teachers who oppose anyone disagreeing with their assessment of what constitutes “age-appropriate,” an undefined term that Booth and her ideological allies use in their defense of the oft and justifiably challenged book.

It’s actually three newly elected members.

Anyway, the 4-2 vote looked like this: Four men — none of whom had read the book — voted for the ban. Two women — both of whom had read the book — voted to keep the book in place. (One board member was absent.) (***Edit***: I’ve been told, but cannot confirm, that one of the women who voted against the ban did not read the book; her daughter read it.)

It was a confusing vote, too. At least one of the board members thought he was voting against the committee’s recommendations, but didn’t realize he was banning the book. He figured the committee would just have to offer a new proposal.

And it wasn’t just the teachers’ ire that was raised. The students were pissed off, too. This is a good book that talks about real issues. They wanted to know how to fight back against the school board.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age novel that includes suicide, abortion, drug use, foul language, heterosexual intercourse, homosexual sodomy, masturbation, bestiality, incestuous molestation, and rape — you know, all the topics “progressives” think form the basis for a solid education. Please read these excerpts from the book that Booth believes is a wonderful and “age-appropriate” book for eighth graders. ( **WARNING: Obscene content.**)

The book indeed covers those things. It doesn’t make light of them — it talks about them honestly and bluntly — it’s one of the reasons students relate to the book so strongly. They’ve experienced or heard about these things for years at this point. If conservative Christians have an issue with that, they should take it up with their God for creating puberty. To have a fictional character go through those experiences and talk about them so honestly and vividly is almost surreal the first time you encounter it. I suspect it’s how a lot of older people felt the first time they read Catcher in the Rye.

The linked document puts many of these passages together as if to suggest that’s what the whole book is about.

If we wanted to, we could do the exactly same thing with the Bible. Rape, incest, violence, sex, sex, sex, more sex… (oh my god, IFI must want to ban the Bible, too!)

In addition to the arrogant unwillingness of teachers to ask for permission to teach such a controversial book, it is reported that three of the teachers, Lynn Bruno, Ali Tannenbaum, and Booth, initiated classroom discussions on the topic, ginning up support for their position among students. It’s reported that Booth suggested to students in her class that the school board vote was unfair, that it was censorship, and that students have a “voice.” Apparently, Booth believes that the voices of 14 year-olds should have greater influence than the voices of parents and school board members. Such use of class time to engage students in a public controversy and attempt to manipulate student opinion is unprofessional and an abuse of their power and role as public servants.

Actually, the students initiated the conversations. When they heard the book was banned, they wanted to know what they could do to reverse the decision. The teachers told them the steps they would need to take (like speaking at the next meeting of the school board) to have an impact.

The teachers weren’t saying the voices of 14-year-olds were more important than everybody else’s — but they damn well believed the students shouldn’t be shut out of the conversation. They wanted to say something, so the teachers told them what tools were at their disposal.

Coincidentally, these three teachers (along with Kelly Coleman) spoke at a subsequent school board meeting in support of the retention of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Were there no teachers who supported the school board’s decision? And if there were teachers who supported it, why didn’t they speak up at the school board meeting?

Not surprisingly, students and their voices made an appearance at school board meetings to support the retention of Perks.

Believe it or not, most teachers oppose the banning of books. (Shocking, I know.)

Students tend to like this particular book, too.

It’s usually just religious conservatives who think they should be able to control what everyone else gets to read. It’s not enough that they forbid their own children from reading it; they have to stop your kids from reading it.

But it gets worse. During the recent 8th grade graduation ceremony, one of the two board members who voted in favor of retaining the book, Terra Costa Howard, abused her privilege of speaking by quoting from the disputed book. Demonstrating both a lack of judgment and sensitivity, Howard transformed a family celebration into a controversial political event, ruining it for the daughter of one of the families who oppose the book.

Howard — who’s no longer on the board — referenced a quotation from Charlie in an address she gave at graduation. It wasn’t political. It wasn’t controversial. In any other situation, it would’ve gone unnoticed. But because she referred to the book in the middle of this controversy, IFI wants you to think it was a political statement.

It wasn’t.

It should be noted that this brave girl was bullied relentlessly by classmates for two days following the school board’s vote. She was called “snitch,” “tattletale,” and “goody two-shoes.” Kids passing her in the halls said snottily, “Thanks a lot,” and “good job.” And her locker was festooned with post-it notes with flowers (get it — “wallflowers”). Apparently, the book, which was made into a film, hasn’t taught these kids much about compassion, kindness, diversity, or inclusion.

Here’s what really happened: students began putting up Post-It notes with the word “Flower” written on them all around the school. Unfortunately, that included the girl’s locker. That’s disappointing since she didn’t do anything wrong. This is her parents’ issue, not hers. The teachers Higgins condemns in her piece, after finding out about this, made it very clear to their students that this sort of bullying had absolutely no place at the school. They won’t put up with it and they’re certainly not condoning it.

The students may be upset about the book-banning, but they shouldn’t take their frustration out on one of their classmates. There are far more productive ways to fight back.

On a side note, it takes a lot of chutzpah to see someone from IFI criticize bullying when that’s precisely what the organization is known for doing to the LGBT community.

Booth told parents that it is their responsibility to monitor the books their children are exposed to in school. In other words, don’t trust their teachers. So, now parents must read every book assigned or chosen with a teacher’s recommendation, and they must read these books before their children do. For those families who have multiple children this is a nearly impossible expectation.

It’s a teacher’s responsibility to pick books that are part of the curriculum. When it comes to books selected by the students, yes, the ball shifts to the parents’ court.

Keep in mind that teachers can’t possibly know where different families draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable. What’s good for one may be bad for another and vice versa.

This is where the school’s current policy makes a lot of sense: If parents don’t want their child reading a particular book, all they have to do is say so and the teacher will accommodate the request.

The teachers did that here. But it still wasn’t good enough for the parents.

Okay, so what happens now?

The school board has decided to revisit the issue next Monday night. It’s noteworthy because the board has changed since the 4-2 vote. Two of the men who voted to ban the book are no longer in office. One of the women who voted to keep the book is gone, too. So the vote is is currently at 2-1 in favor of the ban, with three new board members (plus the member who was absent last time).

They need to be convinced that this book is worth reading and that banning it for everyone is the wrong option. Please write to them (politely, respectfully) and let them know that. They need to hear your voice.

There’s also a petition at Change.org urging the Board to reverse its decision. It was created by Kristin Ginger, who graduated from Hadley in 2000. Sign it.

Finally, at Monday night’s board meeting, you KNOW there will be a vocal group of conservative Christians there, courtesy of IFI. So if you live in area, attend the meeting and be a voice of reason instead of a voice of censorship and fear. If there’s a chance for public comments, speak out against banning books for everybody just because you’re not comfortable with it.

If you’re a student at Hadley, bring your friends and come to the meeting. The voices of intelligent, open-minded students go a long way to swaying a school board to do the right thing. Start a Facebook group, spread the word, and get everyone involved.

This isn’t about one family. This is about whether adults, supported by the Christian Right, get to dictate what books all students are allowed to read at school. They have no right to do that, and the school board needs to know it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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