Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Objections of Arkansas parents to graphic descrip-tions of sexual acts in booksoffered to students in their school libraries have fueled a feud in the Ozarks.

Some parents say the books are so shocking they “will curl your toes.” The school superintendent compares the protests of parents to “cancer.”

The furor began eight months ago in Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, with the self-consciously liberal instincts of a college town, but surrounded by a conservative, church-going county in the heart of the Bible Belt. Fayetteville votes Democratic, and Washington County votes Republican.

Laurie Taylor first went to the Fayetteville Board of Education in January with concerns about three books containing explicit descriptions and pictures of sexual activity. She and others subsequently formed a group called Parents Protecting the Minds of Children.

One book for children in kindergarten through fourth grade, “It’s So Amazing,” raised parents’ ire with its narrative and illustrations portraying, with a positive tone, masturbation, homosexual relationships and abortion.

A book for ninth-graders called “The Teenage Guy’s Survival Guide” describes pornography as “natural and fine.”

The district administration agreed May 28 that the three books posed a problem and sequestered them in a parents-only section of the school libraries, not available to children. The parent group has since flagged 53 books in the Fayetteville High School library and one in middle and junior high school libraries, citing their explicit descriptions of how to engage in various types of sexual relationships, and validating sexually active teens. The parents say another 50 books under review might be problematic.

“They’re beyond vile,” Mrs. Taylor said of the 53 novels her group has asked the school board to sequester in parent-only sections of the school libraries. “They’re not informational, they’re not sex education.They’re just pandering sex to young people. It will curl your toes.”

The parents have appeared regularly at school board meetings all year to voice their concerns. The unfolding story has widely reported by the state’s major newspapers and television stations, and has become a staple of radio talk shows.

Bobby C. New, the superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools, declined to respond to four written requests from The Washington Times for an interview or for comment.

Mr. New recently told talk-show host Don Elkins of Station KFAY-AM in Fayetteville that he takes “Mrs. Taylor’s problem and challenge very seriously, but we can’t stop flying the airplane because we have a parent that is not satisfied, or parents that have issues with us.”

The school division has had a committee reviewing and deciding on one book at a time since the first three were flagged in January, he said, and will review the subsequent 53 books on the complaint list one at a time.

The parents object that this delays resolution of the conflict. Some teachers agree. “It took about six months for the district to deal with the first three books Taylor challenged,” said Debbie Pelley, a 27-year veteran English teacher in Jonesboro, a college town (Arkansas State University) in another part of the state. “At that rate, it will take 11 years to process [all the] books that Laurie and other parents have identified that are even worse than the first three.”

Mr. New told the radio interviewer: “This issue is not time-sensitive; it’s quality driven.”

He takes issue with Mrs. Taylor’s claim that many of the listed books were pornographic. In an e-mail message he said: “This is nonsense about pornography and all that kind of information. We will take issue and have an honest disagreement over that.”

He described the parent effort to identify sexually explicit books in school libraries as “almost a cancer that grows within the total body of our school district. What we try to do is work through that issue.”

The superintendent said school librarians are careful to purchase only books recommended by the American Library Association. The Library Association regards objections to almost any book as censorship, even books for elementary and secondary school libraries.

“I will defend our librarians to the bitter end,” Mr. New said. “They are professional, trained, serious [teachers] who totally, totally have a process of reviewing everything that is ordered, to include reviewing critics, national critics that have been identified by the American Library Association as being credible.”

Susan Winborn Heil, at-large board of education member, said emotions were running high in Fayetteville. “I have found that the majority of the highly emotional people I have talked with don’t have a good handle on the facts, but are relying on what they have heard to be the truth.” A methodical review of each book is necessary, she says.

Mike Masterson, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in Little Rock, the state’s largest newspaper, calls Mrs. Taylor’s cause “selfless and noble.”

“She has had the gall to insist that parents of all elementary, middle and high school-age children actually be informed when their children check out one of the more-than 70 books that concern her,” he wrote in a recent column. “These would be books that speak in grossly inappropriate terms about promiscuous romps of all imaginable shapes and forms, including incest with both parents.”

Placing such books in a restricted section of the library and school notification of parents for their consent when their children seek access in person or by Internet request is appropriate, Mr. Masterson wrote.

“This issue … is only about a parent’s right to rear children in the way he or she believes is best without the state providing hidden, potentially corrupting influences.”

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