CHESHIRE — A middle-school English unit on books dealing with “social justice” topics such as racism, violence, and other politically charged subjects has led to several parents expressing serious concerns over their inclusion in the curriculum.
The topic was first raised during the Oct. 6 Open Forum meeting of the Board of Education, where a contingent of parents turned out for the event to express their objections to the materials. Then, only about 15 minutes into the Oct. 20 meeting of the Board of Education, members of the public began coming up to the podium to once again express their concerns.
Board Chair Tony Perugini led off by reading the Board of Education’s public comment regulation into the record but, as with the prior commentary on the issue, the discourse remained moderate and respectful.
As Perugini remarked, “I felt (the open forum meeting) was a classic example of how this town can come together and have a great discussion on some uncomfortable topics without screaming at each other,” adding that it was important to hear “from all facets of where people stand on things.”
The first speaker, Sharon Houck, came prepared with a written statement. She prefaced her comments by praising the town of Cheshire generally and saying that its “educational system is exceptional.” Nonetheless, she offered serious reservations about “a woke agenda” and its “corrosive viewpoint” in the curriculum. She objected to two books in particular.
The young adult novel, “Ghost Boys,” by author Jewell Parker Rhodes, is problematic, according to Houck, because of the main character’s death at the hands of fictional police officers. The protagonist goes on to encounter the ghost of Emmett Till, the real-life Black child who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.
“Books displaying the police as the enemy only serve to sow distrust towards those that we rely on for the protection of all our citizens,” she stated. Houck asked the Board to consider removing the text from the curriculum.
A second book, “Boy21” by Matthew Quick, author of “Silver Linings Playbook” among other books, depicts the Irish mob. Houck felt it was “inappropriate” for the age group in question, namely 11-to 12-year-olds, due to its high school setting.
“Cheshire is becoming increasingly diverse in ethnic backgrounds, and this trend will and should continue,” Houck went on to say. “These books deal with controversial issues, not always pretty. I would hazard a guess that everyone in this room tonight would never dream of treating another human being the way that these books portray. We are picking at the scabs of these issues.”
Houck praised the school district’s addition of two books to the curriculum that “celebrate the positive side of life.”
A second speaker, Alicia Heapy, attempted to counter some of those concerns. She said that, regardless of Cheshire’s good quality of life, she wants her children to think of themselves as “citizens of the wider world,” who are “introduced to topics of importance in the wider world.” She spoke in support of balance and “making sure that when (alteration to the reading list) happens that it’s not disruptive to the existing lesson plan and curriculum and things like that.”
Another parent, Stephanie Calo, introduced herself as the wife of a police officer and said her son was “very vocal” about expressing his discomfort with the subject matter of some of the books. Her son’s teacher, Calo said, “respected it and was good about it and they did come forward with a couple other book options for my child and other students.”
However, she did argue that such topics as “critical race theory and discrimination” should be discussed at home “at the discretion of parents.”
Perugini ended the public commentary portion saying “we welcome the public comment. That’s how we learn, that’s how we get the feedback closer to the school district and take some meaningful action to address these issues.”
Board member Faith Ham, who chairs the Curriculum Committee, defended the teachers’ choices of books and provided supporting documents for the board.
“These (books) were not randomly selected,” Ham said. “We won’t make everybody in the community happy about it, but there was a method to the selection process.”
The teachers, Ham said, “willingly obliged” the expansion of the list to include “uplifting” texts. She pointed to the awards the books have won as well as the learning objectives of the unit to underline the point that the teachers carefully considered their selections.
Board member Anne Harrigan, who is also on the Curriculum Committee, echoed Ham’s sentiments. She said the result of the meetings is that all Board members, when talking to parents, “can be very secure that when curriculum is chosen throughout Cheshire public schools there’s a lot behind it. It’s not information that’s just thrown together willy-nilly. These are professionals — teachers, administrators. It’s important to have that transparency in the process.”