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School Board Responds to Call for Book Ban

The Lower Township Elementary Board of Education in a Feb. 2022 meeting.

By Collin Hall

COLD SPRING – At a Feb. 22 Lower Township Elementary (LTE) Board of Education meeting, around 30 parents, teachers, and members of the public were present, and some spoke on a book that has been accused of promoting critical race theory. 

The book in question, “Black and White” by Paul Volponi, has been a point of contention for at least six months. At the board’s January meeting, LTE parent Lauren Cox and a grandparent attended to speak out against the book’s inclusion in the school library. 

In a letter to the editor sent to the Herald after the January meeting, Cox said that the book contains “divisive racial ideology” and “X-rated language.” Cox alleged in her letter that the school board walked out of the board meeting as the grandmother read sections from the book.  

In her letter and in a brief speech Cox gave at the February board meeting, she characterized the school board as lacking the ability to discern “good from evil,” adding that the book has “no academic value.” She and others critical of the book lament that it remains in the school’s library. 

In a statement read by board Vice President Michael Mader, several clarifications about the book’s presence at the school were made. The statement, which was read by Mader but was reflective of the board, clarified that the book is not part of the school library, but is part of a restricted in-classroom library that is primarily used for book clubs.  

Students are required to have written parental permission should they choose to check out “Black and White” and other books aimed at more mature readers from their classroom libraries, the statement said. 

Issues with the book were brought up as far back as May 2021, and the board consulted “teachers, media specialists, administrators, the family of the affected student, a book challenge review committee, the curriculum committee, and individual board members” when discussing the book’s presence in the school. The statement stressed that the book has never been part of the curriculum or the school’s formal library and that the book is designed to be read by more advanced students, who choose the book themselves. 

From the statement: “The decision to read any one of the identified titles lies with the parents. After parental permission has been granted, the teacher can present the book as a possible reading selection, and the teacher can decide if it is something he or she wants to read. The books are not readily available to the students and can only be accessed by the teacher.  

“Students reading any of the titles are typically in book clubs, where they discuss the content and themes with book club members, with a teacher facilitating the discussion. The teacher will select the book only if he or she believes the content matches the social, emotional maturity of the student and that the student may have an interest in the themes presented in the book.  

“When the student chooses a book in the media center labeled ‘YA,’ the student will give the book to the classroom teacher who is then required to get parental permission to enable the student to read the book.  

It is important to note that the specific book in question, ‘Black and White,’ is not, and never has been, part of the curriculum, and is not required reading.” 

After the statement was read, several members of the public rose to speak. Heather Robinson, a teacher at LTE and a parent of an LTE student, spoke in favor of the book’s inclusion in the classroom.  

She said that it is important that students are challenged by the literature they read if they are emotionally and intellectually prepared for the challenge. 

“I have students reading above grade level and who read sometimes up to 40-plus novels in the school year,” Robinson said. “This lends itself to books that may not be appropriate to all children.  

“Each year, I have students who read very mature literature approved by their parents. As of now in my classroom, with 19 parents, 16 of my parents have signed a permission slip allowing their children to read mature content.” 

Robinson said that her own child read “Black and White.” The book, she said, spurred “valuable conversations” with her daughter. She urged other parents to see literature as an opportunity for growth and worries that removing “Black and White” would set a bad precedent. 

She said that the book “led to strong conversations, ironically, about ideas like freedom of choice, book banning… You may not agree with what books I choose to share with my child, but I can only hope that you will respect my choices, as I will yours…  

“It is my job as a teacher to give them tools on how to critically think and evaluate opposing views. It is not my job to tell them what to think. We respectfully learn how to disagree with each other in my classroom.  

“If you were to remove this book, that has parental support, then you are opening the door for books teaching just about anything challenging to be questioned. Harry Potter for witchcraft, the Hunger Games for violence, non-fiction books on climate change, books on patriotism…” 

Another parent, Laurie Randall, praised the board, saying that their efforts to educate Lower Township students are appreciated. She supported the book’s inclusion at the school.  

A man who spoke after Randall challenged the audience to “think for yourselves.”  

“Just because somebody is a so-called expert doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about,” he added. 

Despite the heated opposition, the LTE board said that the book will remain in classroom libraries. They said that the processes in place are sufficient and that the “multiple steps and safeguards that have been put in place will prevent any future incidents from occurring.”  

The board’s statement indicated that this process was not properly followed in the case of Cox’s child, who read “Black and White.” 

Volponi, the author of “Black and White,” responded in a Herald letter to the editor to the accusations made against his work. He said that the contents of his book were birthed from experience and that the mature content of the book was written to “hold a mirror up to society.”  

“Make no mistake, there is some stark language in the book, especially from a homeless man who boards a subway train on which Marcus and Eddie are riding,” he wrote. “That scene emerged from a real experience.” 

The debate at Lower Township echoes similar challenges to books in schools across America. This reality was reflected in a Herald letter to the editor from Bertram Halbruner, in Woodbine, who stated, “This is an issue that is coming to light throughout the nation. It is not isolated to our area. I would direct your attention to hundreds of similar news stories available via a simple internet search.”  

NPR reported in late 2021 that “the American Library Association says the number of attempts to ban school library books was 67% higher in September 2021 than in September 2020.”  

Though “Black and White” will remain at Lower Township schools, challenges to books like it continue throughout the nation. 

To contact Collin Hall, email chall@cmcherald.com.  

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