- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Destiny Burns wants her daughter, a ninth-grader at Fairfax County's Westfield High, to check out Ken Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth" a book set in the Middle Ages from the school's library for her history reading.

There is one problem, though. Last year, the school board restricted access to the book to students in grades 10 and higher because some parents complained about what they said were violent and obscene passages.

Mrs. Burns, who says the book is relevant to a ninth-grade course on the Middle Ages, is hoping she can get the school system to agree with her point of view: that one group of parents should not be dictating to the rest what books their children can read.

"I am kind of pushing the envelope here," said Mrs. Burns, adding that she moved to Fairfax because of the quality of its schools. "The regulations say the school board decision is final. But as a taxpayer, I didn't want to accept that."

Mrs. Burns says she already has received Westfield Principal Dale Rumberger's consent to have the book released to her daughter, and has written a letter to county schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech.

Her fight is another turn in a long-running debate over books in Fairfax County schools.

Parents are aligned on either side of the issue. At one end is Parents Against Bad Books in Schools (PABBIS), a group formed last year that wants certain books dropped from school reading lists and libraries. The group has a long list of such books on its Web site and even has challenged some, including "Pillars of the Earth," under a formal process available to parents in the county.

On the other end is Right to Read, formed this year by Mrs. Burns and other parents who support free access to books in school libraries.

The two groups will face off Thursday at a town hall meeting, the first of its kind in the county. Fairfax County schools also will give a presentation.

The meeting, said Mr. Domenech, is intended to provide information on the book selection process. "We also wanted to give the community an opportunity to weigh in," he said.

Mr. Domenech said people needed to understand the difference between required reading materials and those that parents could choose. Most of the books to which parents object usually are not required reading, he said.

The meeting comes on the heels of another book challenge brought earlier this week by parent Stan Barton against "Gates of Fire," by Stephen Pressfield. Mr. Barton, whose two daughters will start high school at Westfield in four years, said he was disappointed when the board did not bring forward a motion to have the book removed from high school library shelves.

He said he understands the argument of parents like Mrs. Burns, who want to decide what their children read, and proposes what he says is a simple solution: consent forms that parents will be asked to sign each time their children might have to read a book containing potentially objectionable material. "We don't have the tools to do anything now unless we have read every single book in the library," he said.

An effort by at-large board member Rita Thompson to create such forms failed last year. Instead, the board created a set of guidelines, including a review committee that would review print materials used in classroom instruction.

Kathy Stohr, who has a daughter at Westfield, will speak out for PABBIS at the meeting. "I want parents to be aware about what their children are reading at schools," said Mrs. Stohr, who last year filed two book challenges, including the one against "Pillars of the Earth." She said the debate started by PABBIS had caused more awareness among parents.

Mrs. Burns, however, says the "objectionable" portions cited by PABBIS make up less than 1 percent of the book and are taken out of context by the group. She said the failure of Mr. Barton's challenge Monday showed that the school board was taking note of parents like her who wanted their children to have access to a variety of reading materials. "A counterargument needed to be raised," she said. "We could be getting into some First Amendment issues here."

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