District defends book selection process
Administrators say they comply with state law
August 10, 2023
Parents who say they're offended by some of the Shelton School District's literacy instruction books were told Monday that the district is following state laws and district policies while selecting books for students.
At a work session at CHOICE High School, the school board gathered to discuss the district's curriculum. The session was scheduled after parents and guardians during regular board meetings in June and July complained about the content in about 10 of the 150 books for grades seven through 12 that were recommended by the district's Instructional Materials Committee and then approved by the school board June 27.
In his opening presentation, Superintendent Wyeth Jessee said the district's curriculum selection procedure is supported by state law and the district's own policies. He stressed that parents who object to the politics, religion or morals in a book can request to work with the teacher to find a suitable replacement.
"The big issue is not following policy ... You can get into trouble if you don't follow the policy," Jessee said.
"We are a nonpartisan agency," the superintendent said. "We're not out to promote anything."
He added, "Some districts are slanted because they don't represent the students themselves."
Jessee pointed out only half of the district's high school students are reading at or above grade level, and only 33% of its elementary school students read at grade level.
About 25 people attended the meeting. Even though public comments are not taken during study sessions, where no board actions are taken, audience members shouted at the board members, prompting Board President Keri Davidson to threaten to empty the room. The catcalls continued.
After the superintendent's opening presentation, Maryann Marshall, the district's executive director of Instructional Programs K-12, outlined the procedures for adopting materials for literacy instruction. At the board's June 27 meeting, she said the Instructional Materials Committee had rejected 12 books it didn't feel were appropriate.
Board member Matt Welander recommended the board find a standard site that rates books, thus making the district's choices legally defensible to the state.
"I don't think anyone is being forced to read anything," he added.
Board member Sandy Tarzwell said she is concerned about the amount of a time an appeal can take, asking what that student would be doing in the meantime.
Monday's work session was scheduled following the board's regular July 11 meeting, where three parents during the public comment period said they are offended by some of the district's books.
"I've got a few books I want to read from, so you might want to plug your ears," Dean Jewett said at that meeting. He then read passages aloud depicting a sensual scene between two women.
"This one was on the New York Times (list), one of the year's best books," he said. "Any time you see that, throw the god damn thing in the garbage can, as far as I'm concerned."
Jewett then listed some of the words he finds offensive in the books, most of a sexual or anatomical nature.
"Do you guys all realize that those are all books that are in the ELA curriculum? I mean, you guys must be so proud. The only time I've ever seen someone stand up was Sandy (Tarzwell), thank you. I appreciate it. Wyeth, are you going to read these to your kids? I bet you're not."
Marilyn Aaron said she is offended by books she believes sexualize children.
"When did we stop caring about their innocence?" she asked. "Because I haven't. Why have you?"
If the board members have "the best interests of our children in mind, you would not approve a curriculum that contains suicide ideation, inflammatory racial division, murder in vivid details and sexually explicit and graphic details," Aaron said.
Kara Medcalf asked the board members, "Are you caring for the kids, or are you caring for money from the government?"
"We're not here to argue and yell and scream," she said. "We're here to work together to make it happen ... We have to do it before it's too late."
That's when Tarzwell introduced the motion to put the books in question under further review, "before books are placed in the building."
"I think it's probably less than 10 books in total brought up," Tarzwell said. When the superintendent asked her to name the books so they can be included in the public records, the titles included "Like a Love Story," "The Hate You Give," "The 57 Bus," "Looking for Alaska" and "Last Night at the Telegraph Club."
The board voted to further review the books in question.