March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

‘Highland Park Kids Read’ Takes on Censorship Battle in TX School District

Highland Park High School and the Highland Park Independent School District have come onto the national radar with a censorship battle that got momentum last spring.

The Highland Park (TX) Independent School District (HPISD) has been the focus of a censorship battle between two opposing parental groups, Highland Park Kids Read (HPKR), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting challenged literature in HPISD classrooms, and Speak Up for Standards (SUFS), a group advocating the removal of “offensive” literature from the school’s curriculum.

At a December 9 school board meeting, Superintendent Dawson Orr is expected to present his recommended changes to the district’s book selection policy—as well as recommended revisions on how material may be challenged. Under HPISD’s current policy, reading materials are selected by teachers and administrators; parents who object to their child’s book assignment may have the child opt out, with the teacher providing an alternative assignment.

SUFS has pushed for parents to have more say in selecting and removing literature at Highland Park High School (HPHS). The group has proposed changes to the high school’s literature policy, including requiring for the school to provide detailed content descriptions of “all potentially controversial reading materials” to parents prior to assignment with permission forms. Other changes listed on its website: The high school must form literature committees to select and review appropriate literature, and the school’s AP book list, which teachers may currently use without reviews or informed parental consent, must go through a more rigorous selection process with parental consent forms for controversial material.

The reconsideration of the HPISD materials policy was sparked when a few books on the HPHS Approved Book List drew the objection of parents this spring. Following an email campaign launched by SUFS, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Pocket Books, 1999) and Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes (Atria, 2007) were banished from HPHS’s Approved Book List in May 2014, triggering a series of events within the Highland Park community and leading to the scrutiny and revision of the school district’s current materials selection and materials challenge policy. More books were pulled from HPHS’s Approved Book List in mid-September. They were: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little Brown, 2007); John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006); Song of Solomon (Knopf, 1977) by Toni Morrison; The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper Collins, 2008) by Garth Stein; The Glass Castle (S. & S., 2005) by Jeannette Walls; The Working Poor (Random House, 2004) by David Shipler; and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

“Some of the kids were in the middle of reading those books,” says Lynn Dickenson, parent of an eighth grader at HPHS and also a member of HPKR, which had received a $5,000 seed grant from the Freedom to Read Foundation, a First Amendment legal defense organization affiliated with the American Library Association (ALA).

“There is a process for complaining about books, but [the principal] suspended the books without going through the policy…the parent can file a formal Request for Reconsideration [for Instructional Materials],” says Dickenson, who goes on to disclose that the Requests for Reconsiderations for the suspended titles weren’t filed until after the suspensions.

HPHS’s Principal Walter Kelley reinstated the seven titles a week after he’d suspended them in September. There have been no books added or removed since.

“Censors are bullies,” says Pat Scales, the former chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. (Scales is acting as an independent consultant to HPKR.) “Every once in a while you have [a] legitimate [case] of parents with a concern. And that is when you [provide] an alternative [book] assignment. What we have here is a group that wants to change the curriculum.”

Highland Park is a wealthy, mainly Republican community located in Dallas County. According to the 2014 U.S. News and World Report Education Rankings, HPHS is #14 in public high schools in the state, #98 in the country, and its student body’s AP participation rate is 87 percent. Its student body is also 90 percent white.

“[The HPHS current curriculum’s] goal is to expose students to all kinds of literature and all ways of life,” explains Scales.

Both the ALA and the National Association Against Censorship have written letters to the HPISD voicing objections to parental interference in the curriculum, and ALA’s letter voiced strong objection to any use of the “American Library Association’s annual Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged and Banned Books List as a means of identifying so-called ‘objectionable texts.’”

Kristin Pekoll, the assistant director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, emails, “Red-flagging these books just because they appear on this list is a gross misuse of a tool intended to highlight the harms of censorship in libraries and schools and to raise awareness of the need to protect the right to read.”

What began as a group of parents objecting to the approved reading content at HPHS has grown into a larger issue about whether parents should curate the curriculum. At a school board meeting in November, Superintendent Orr was tasked to revise the district policy regarding how material is selected for the entire school district, which Dickinson says goes beyond the selection of materials for the English Language Arts curriculum. HPKR presented a letter to the board objecting to any changes in school policy, with 322 signatures, at the same board meeting.

“The issues here are broader than just one school district. It is about the power of money,” says Scales. “If these parents are allowed to rewrite the curriculum, it is setting up a terrible precedence.”

Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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