It will be at least four years before his twin daughters get to high school, but Stan Barton is already worried about what they will be reading when they get there.
This month, Mr. Barton, a resident of Fairfax County, filed a challenge to remove from the shelves of Westfield High School’s library copies of the book “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield.
The book is set in 480 B.C. in northern Greece, where 300 Spartan knights and their allies faced the army of the Persian king in the Battle of Thermopylae. Some parents say that while the book may have some historical relevance, it also contains passages that are obscene and violent and therefore unfit for children to read.
Though Mr. Barton’s daughters are in the fourth grade at an elementary school in the Westfield pyramid, he said he filed the challenge as a “proactive measure.”
“I saw excerpts from the book, and it looked bad,” he said. So he bought the book. He says he was shocked by some of what he read.
“This is not something I want my children to read,” he said.
Kathy Stohr, who has a daughter at Westfield High, said the book was on her daughter’s summer reading list last year. “It is a book I have concerns about,” she said, adding that it was “wonderful” that Mr. Barton had challenged it.
This is the first book challenge in Fairfax this academic year, but it reflects a growing movement in the county. The campaign was started by a group of parents who object to what they call “obscene” literature in schools and say they want the school systems to do something about it.
These parents have organized a group called PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools). The group’s Web site, www.pabbis.org, lists several passages from books that the parents say are inappropriate reading for children.
The last such challenge in Fairfax was filed last year against a book called “Druids” by Morgan Llywelyn. That challenge was filed by Mrs. Stohr. In February, the School Board took the book off the shelves of middle-school libraries but retained it in high schools.
As PABBIS has become more vocal, there has been a corresponding push from parents who want their children to prepare for college-level literature, said Jane Strauss, a School Board member from the Dranesville district.
“There are some passages in some of these books that are not appropriate, but some parents feel that if their high-school student is going to take college-level courses, they need to read these books,” she said.
The School Board has been working to establish guidelines that will make parents aware of what kind of books their children are required to read. But the books on the optional reading lists are what worry some parents.
“If I happen to be aware of a certain book I don’t want my children to read, I can do something about it. But it is hard for a parent to read everything on the reading list,” Mr. Barton said.
Rita Thompson, a School Board member at-large, supports creating parental-consent forms that would allow parents to decline permission for their children to read material that includes obscene language or descriptions of sexual acts and violence. Mrs. Thompson also backs designing a coding system that will tell parents whether a book has objectionable material.
According to Mrs. Thompson, some board members were working with Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech to create the coding system. “Books will be coded with an S if it contains sex, V if it contains violence, P if it contains profanity, and so on,” she said.
She said the board hoped to have the system in place by the start of the next school year. “Nothing is written yet. We are in uncharted waters,” she said.
The coding would be done for books assigned in the future, but it would not cover books already assigned. “We cannot go back and do it for every single book in the library because it would be a big undertaking,” Mrs. Thompson said.
Mrs. Strauss said she did not support the coding system, and neither did a majority of the School Board. The guidelines being considered by the board will adequately address any parental concerns, she said.
Mrs. Stohr said the coding system, while a step in the right direction, was not enough. She said, “there is a spectrum of books that could have an S or a V.”
“Certain people on the staff should annotate what is in the book and provide that to parents. I do not think that would be a lot of extra work for the school system,” she said.