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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bedford parents’ protests about book pre-empted

BEDFORD – While two local parents headlined the debate about the book that was recently pulled from Bedford High School for its sexual content, others had protested privately through e-mails to the school principal.

By the time the public protest of the book took place at the Bedford School Board meeting Feb. 14, the decision to pull the book from class had been made.

“Water for Elephants,” a 2006 historical novel by Sara Gruen, was scheduled to be used by students who elected to take a three-day intersession course in April, but the program was canceled after controversy surfaced two weeks ago surrounding the book’s “graphic descriptions” of oral sex and masturbation.

Dennis and Aimee Taylor were the first to publicly condemn the book at the School Board meeting Monday, but Bedford High School Principal Bill Hagen said the teachers who proposed it were “knowledgeable about concerns about the book” from other parents, which led to the decision to remove the program.

Dennis Taylor’s e-mail of protest to Hagen and Superintendent Tim Mayes came after the decision had been made, Hagen said.

The Taylors also complained about Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America” earlier in the school year, which led to the book’s removal from the school’s personal finance class in January.

The process to remove “Nickel and Dimed” took several months and followed a strict procedure, Mayes said, but the process moved more quickly with “Water for Elephants” because the issue was resolved at an earlier stage.

The procedure to question education material is available on the school district’s website,, and Bedford School Board Chairwoman Terry Wolf said the board tries to direct parents to that protocol or to the school when they have a concern.

“When any parents have a complaint about anything, the first step is go to a teacher,” Wolf said. “Any parent that has a concern needs to follow the process.

“Other parents do so all the time and usually it’s resolved at a very early level. Very few issues come to the School Board.”

Still, residents are allowed to speak at the School Board meetings to air their grievances. Wolf said she allowed the Taylors to speak on Monday but directed them to return to the school for further resolution.

“Every citizen has a right at a public hearing like the School Board to voice an opinion during public time about just about anything regarding the operation of the school,” Hagen said. “Mr. Taylor exercised that right, and certainly has the right to express his concern.”

Taylor was surprised when he learned on Thursday that the decision to remove the book had already been made.

“I went for public comments to get the ball rolling, but I did not, under any circumstances, believe it possible that the book would be pulled soon,” Taylor said in an e-mail. “Instead, it had been pulled even before the public comments time.”

But Taylor is still unsatisfied with the motivation behind Hagen’s decision.

“What is wrong with Principal Hagen’s judgment that he feels he should pull a book because of the negative impact that controversy will have on his teachers, but he cares nothing for the depraved impact it will have on his students?” Taylor said in an e-mail.

“From what I saw at the meeting, he clearly is concerned only for the well being of himself and his teachers.”

Mayes said the process needs work, especially at the beginning when a book is proposed for use, but the impact of the school’s texts on its students is a primary concern.

“Administratively, we need to give a little more specifics to our staff on how to make these decisions concerning literature and media in determining whether or not the educational value of that material outweighs any particular limitations of the work,” he said. “Our polices speak to it in general terms, but it allows for a lot of interpretation.

“We need to give our staff more direction than that. What that direction looks like needs to be really well thought out and representative of multiple ideas and diversified opinions.”

Mayes said the school will take an in-depth look at the process this year, and he’d like to develop some sort of rubric to help outline what’s acceptable or educationally valuable.

“Books that have been used in a course have had scrutiny from various eyes,” Mayes said. “But here, the teachers developed a proposal that was reviewed by a committee of people, and they made a decision with the caveat that they knew there were some shortcomings in the material. Now, we need to find out if the original decision was an appropriate decision.”

Gruen’s agent, Emma Sweeney, said the author declined comment on the situation.

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or