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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Second book challenged and removed in Bedford

A second book has been pulled from the Bedford High School curriculum following complaints about its sexual content by the same parents who started the argument about “Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America,” which was removed from the high school’s personal finance course last month.

Sara Gruen’s best-selling book “Water for Elephants” was scheduled to be used in one of the high school’s intersession programs – three-day experiences in April geared to give students a valuable opportunity beyond the classroom – but Bedford High School Principal Bill Hagen said the decision was made last week to remove that course as an option.

Bedford residents Dennis and Aimee Taylor sent complaints to Hagen and Superintendent Tim Mayes about the book last week and denounced the text at the Bedford School Board meeting Monday.

Dennis Taylor said he read “Water for Elephants” in its entirety after his youngest son, Ethan, signed up for the intersession course. His oldest son, Jordan, was pulled out of school following the controversy about “Nickel and Dimed.”

Taylor said he was appalled by the “graphic descriptions” of oral sex and masturbation in “Water for Elephants,” which is a historical novel about an old man remembering his time as a circus veterinarian during the Great Depression.

The book was published in 2006 and the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom said they have no record of the book being challenged previously anywhere in the country.

“This book is likely to be a rated-X book, and thus, is totally unsuitable for use by the school,” Taylor said in an e-mail. “I advocate that all persons responsible for the chain of events that lead to this book being used be fired or terminated from the School Board.”

Taylor further suggested that the school only allow “youth versions” of particular books or organize a parental review system over the summer that would look at books that students need parental permission to read.

“I intend to fight every similar book that crosses my path,” Taylor said.

“We need to change the false notion that a bit of garbage in a book may be overlooked if the rest of the book is fine.”

School Board Chair Terry Wolf and Vice Chair Cindy Chagnon disagreed, however, and said at the Feb. 14 meeting that a book is not always spoiled by a few bad pages. But board member Thomas Collette said he thought the book had no educational value and the particular passages were “objectionable.”

Hagen said since the book was only to be used in the three-day intersession curriculum, it was quickly pulled out of the program list to avoid the kind of national attention and offensive comments that came with the “Nickel and Dimed” controversy.

“The teachers were unwilling to be the brunt of the kinds of comments that were made in the last round of review,” Hagen said.

Hagen said he personally received 50 to 100 comments from “all over the country” and some within the Bedford community about “Nickel and Dimed,” and the majority were “not at the level of respect” he would hoped for civil dialogue.

There are 25 types of intersession courses to sign up for, Hagen said. Teachers put together a proposal for an intersession experience, identify the learning objectives and if the program is approved, students can choose it as a course.

“It can be anything from a book review to travelling abroad,” Hagen said.

Hagen said students who chose the intersession with “Water for Elephants” had to notify their parents and return a signed letter of their approval to the school. Of the nine students who signed up, Hagen said four had returned the slip with permission by last Friday’s deadline, Feb. 11.

The nine students who had signed up to read “Water for Elephants” will now choose from the other intersession course options.

Hagen supported the teachers who wanted to remove the intersession option entirely and avoid another round of controversy, but he said the school has to be careful to avoid starting down this slippery slope.

“The inherent danger in what has happened here is that unless we go through a respectful and challenging review process, we might have a safe and sanitized curriculum,” Hagen said. “That’s a concern as an educator that I have.”

Hagen said the school will continue to improve and review their process to allow books into the curriculum, and he hopes to have more informed discussions from townspeople about them.

“I think we should have better guidance, and we’re looking to do a better job, but we also hope to get a sense of the general community’s opinion on this,” Hagen said. “That includes the opinions that are being expressed now but in a respectful way where we can get a broad range of opinion so we have an understanding of how we should proceed.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com.