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NLS votes to keep controversial book in the classroom

NEW LONDON — Requests from citizens to have a book removed from the New London-Spicer School District curriculum have been denied.

In a 3-2 vote Monday the school board agreed to follow the recommendation of the school administration and allow "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" to remain as an option for teachers to use in the classroom.

The action doesn't mean the book must be part of the curriculum, but that teachers can use it if they choose.

During the last school year, an NLS eighth-grade teacher used the book in her class. An alternative novel was assigned to several students whose parents objected.

Last month, the district received formal "requests for reconsideration of education materials" from two residents who wanted the book removed from NLS classrooms, but not the school library.

During the last couple months the school board received numerous phone calls, emails and letters from local residents opposing and supporting the book.

Written by Sherman Alexie, the young-adult novel features a 14-year-old Native American boy growing up on a reservation.

The book is praised by many educators for its messages about bullying, poverty and other tough socio-economic issues that demonstrate strength of character, and is used in some schools to meet educational standards.

The district received a letter signed by representatives from six organizations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, stating their support for keeping the book in the curriculum. In the letter, the groups said removing the book "in response to a few individuals' complaints" would "undermine educational goals and raise serious First Amendment concerns."

But the book is also criticized for its use of profanity and descriptions of sexual acts. It is a frequent target for removal from school curriculum.

In his formal request to the district, Carrol Sarsland said obscenities in the book make it illegal to use in the classroom. "I do not believe we send our young minds to be victimized to read such immoral drivel," he wrote.

Jessica Conlin, a parent who also filed a formal request to remove the book, wrote that there are other books to use in the classroom. "Why does it have to be this (one)?"

School board members had a similar back-and-forth debate.

Board member Lucinda Dahlberg said the type of profanity used in the book is not allowed in NLS hallways and goes against the district's own handbook for student behavior.

If the book is required reading in the classroom it could send the message that profanity and sexual activity is OK, she said.

Board member Susan Lange said schools expose kids to many issues, like the Holocaust, but that doesn't mean the school supports it.

Board member Cherrish Holland said other books, like "The Outsiders," which is a book about rival gangs in the 1960s, is also read in the classroom.

"I get concerned about where we stop then," Holland said.

The board toyed with delaying the decision and holding more meetings to get public input, but in the end determined they'd all heard enough comments from both sides, were not likely to hear anything new and put the issue to a vote.

Board members Holland, Lange and Holli Cogelow Ruter voted in favor of allowing the book to remain in the curriculum and Dahlberg and Renee Nolting voted against it. Board Chairman Robert Moller did not vote and board member Dan DeGeest was absent.

The teacher who used the book last year has resigned, although Superintendent Paul Carlson said the resignation had nothing to do with the book issue. Carlson said the new teacher hired for the position is also interested in using "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" in the upcoming school year.

As part of the administration's recommendation, teachers that use the book must send a notification and schedule a meeting with parents prior to reading the book in class.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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