The Wallingford Board of Education has a long-standing procedure for dealing with “Requests for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials,” such as parental objections to a book in the curriculum. The complaint first goes to the school principal, who then forwards it to the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who forms an ad hoc committee made up of teachers, administrators and a library media specialist, which issues a decision. If the complainants disagree with that decision, they can appeal to the superintendent. If they don’t like the superintendent’s decision, they can appeal to the Board of Education, which, according to policy, “will resist any attempt to censor materials used by others.”
We interpret that last phrase to mean that the board does not want to give one parent the power to decide what another parent’s children can read. Instead, a complaining parent can ask that his or her own child be excluded from instruction that uses the material in question. Obviously, if that became common practice, things could get very difficult for teachers and administrators, but the policy does empower parents to oversee their own children’s studies.
In the case of Stephen Chbosky’s book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” however, the time for the board to “resist” censorship never came, because the superintendent, Salvatore Menzo, had already overruled the special committee and removed the book from the curriculum, although it will still be available in the library.
Parent Jean-Pierre Bolat objected to the book in November, saying that it glorifies sex, masturbation, date rape and drugs. “... I don’t believe in censorship, but believe in appropriateness,” he said. “This book is inappropriate for children.”
Bolat filed his objection in November, Assistant Superintendent Shawn Parkhurst then convened a committee, which met in January and disagreed with Bolat, choosing to retain the book. Then Bolat appealed to Menzo, who removed the book. Case closed.
Or maybe not. Another parent, Holly Lafond, is seeking to follow the same BoE procedure to have the book reconsidered. “Appropriateness is not determined by another individual when it comes to my child. I and my husband decide what is appropriate or not,” Lafond wrote.
Complicating the issue is the fact that something else happened in January: Bolat was named to the Board of Education, replacing Chet Miller, who had resigned — making Bolat “one of Menzo’s nine supervisors,” as Town Councilor Craig Fishbein put it, although Fishbein said he applauds Bolat as “a parent who gets involved and expresses their concern.”
Bolat was sworn in on Jan. 21, having been nominated for the BoE post by the Republican Town Committee. Several Republicans who were at that meeting, including Fishbein, told a reporter they couldn’t remember whether the book was discussed. Then, on Feb. 6, after consulting other school districts, Menzo ruled in Bolat’s favor on the book. Lafond maintains that such decisions shouldn’t be based “on what other districts are doing.”
While we’d like to figure that this series of events is just a coincidence, even Fishbein said he found the timeline “troubling” and might have preferred that the decision on the book go before the Board of Education. Still, it appears that the proper steps were followed.
Board of Education members of both parties seem reluctant to second-guess the superintendent. “He probably judged on the merits, and I trust his opinion on most matters,” said board Vice Chairman Joe Marrone, a Republican. Menzo, he said, “is in an impossible situation here.”
Impossible? No. Difficult? Yes. But Menzo is well qualified — and well compensated — to make such decisions. Objections to any book need to be considered in view of the fact that high school students, even freshmen, are already being confronted with “adult” issues such as the ones presented in this book. Parents can’t shield them forever.
And there are plenty of sources of insight that were available to Menzo, beyond the other school administrators with whom he consulted — including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers For Free Expression and the Pen American Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee — all of which criticized his decision to remove the book on the objection of one parent, calling that move “educationally and legally suspect.”
Menzo said on Monday, however, that his decision reflects “ambiguities in the curriculum” regarding the book and that he is simply “hitting the pause button,” with further study of the matter to take place over the summer. This sounds like a prudent move.
We trust that the decision on the book was made entirely on the merits, and not influenced in any way by who the objecting parent was — because, otherwise, the decision would be questionable at best. We raise this question reluctantly, because Menzo is certainly well respected in town, but it’s something a good many people naturally want to know.
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