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Alexandria School District pulls two books from program

In response to complaints about books some eighth-graders read as part of a language arts unit this year, Assistant Superintendent Rick Sansted announced at Monday night's Alexandria School Board meeting that parents will be part of a committee to review book selections in the future.

Two of the six books that were met with objections from a group of parents — "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" and "Sold" — will no longer be offered to students, he said.

"Clearly we learned a lot. We made some poor choices on texts," Sansted said. "The language in those texts do not fit what we value in our community."

The other four books cited by the parents' group will be reviewed by June 30.

Staff members will be provided with a process and criteria established to evaluate texts and materials, he said, and a committee will be formed, consisting of two teachers, two members of the Curriculum Advisory Council, four community members and Sansted.

"Part of the challenge is we want to create that criteria, and we have varied perspectives," he said. "I feel like we have a number of quality people in this room that can help."

Bob Cunniff and Angie Krebs represent the school board on the curriculum advisory council that met earlier in the day.

"The board has heard you loud and clear," Cunniff said to the parents. "We need to go through the process and make sure we're doing everything right. And from there, let's not have this happen again. Things will come up again, and we need to be able to work with each other.

It won't work unless there's community involvement."

The district's actions should not be construed as banning books, Krebs said.

"We're certainly not censoring these books. We're just not going to use them for our book study club," she said. "These are issues kids need to hear about. Could we use better texts? Yes, we could."

The council had met with parents the week before.

"We know we have to improve communication with parents," Sansted said, and he thanked people for having the courage to speak.

Social issues

This was the first year for the social issues unit that offered students a choice of books to read. It was one of seven units for eighth-graders in language arts, Sansted said. The six books were among 18 students could choose from.

Among the objections cited for the half-dozen books were passages of a sexual or violent nature, foul language and references to drinking and drugs.

David Wegner, the main spokesman for the parents group, thanked Sansted for working with them on a solution.

"It has not been easy. I don't even want to be here today," he said, noting he cares about the children of School District 206. "I believe we all care about that."

He also appreciated an apology letter that was sent to eighth grade parents that acknowledged missteps, but said this was about inappropriate mature content and how it got there.

"We are not saying that hard issues that eighth graders face shouldn't come up in the classrooms," Wegner said. However, the group believes content addressing social issues should be done through non-fiction, fact-based, evidence-based materials.

"It's one thing to check out these fictional books from a library for your own personal reading," he said. "It's another thing as part of an education curriculum for 13- and 14-year-olds."

The parents believe these six books are contradictory to values they try to live up to, and also do not meet the school's code of conduct.

Calling the school's reaction Monday night a great step in the right direction, Wegner told the board that if objections are raised about another book, they are asking that it be immediately pulled and not reintroduced without an extensive review process.

He also wondered if the people who ordered these books for the eighth graders would be the same ones who will be vetting books in the future.

"I hope our actions will speak louder than our words," Sansted said.

Toward the end, Christine Reilly, who was among those in the audience, spoke up.

"I feel it necessary to say that not everyone shares the same opinion. When I hear about books being removed, that scares me a lot. I feel strongly that another side needs to be heard," she said.

While she appreciates non-fiction books, Reilly also said that fiction has real value, starting with the fiction books parents read to their children.

"I too am very leery of going in and removing books," said Lori Downing, one of those in attendance. "How do books get on these desks so easily, and it's so difficult to get them off?"

In other matters

The school board:

• Accepted the retirements of youth service coordinator Sharon Bisson, bus driver/custodian Steven Takle and paraprofessional Kim Wixon, and resignations of teachers Shawna Zabinski and Brady Dokkebakken, cook Susanah Nyhus, and paraprofessionals Bria Schueler, Eileen Clark, Marilla Lahr, Nicole Dolan and Sarah Olson.

• Unanimously voted to table the recommendation to terminate the contract of math teacher Mallory Johnson after she appeared before the board. She said she had not been treated fairly and encouraged the board to look into the district's employment processes.

• Was informed by Superintendent Julie Critz that a 10-minute telephone community survey is starting this week.

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