Richland School Board to hear appeal on book

RICHLAND -- A good novel can teach a lot about life. But how much profanity or other objectionable content should be in novels used in school?

That's the question the Richland School Board will be asked to consider tonight when a West Richland parent asks to have Snow Falling on Cedars by Washington writer David Guterson removed from the list of books that could be used in an Advanced Placement English language and composition class at Hanford High School.

It's the first book to make it through the district's new review process after the Richland School District almost a year ago adopted new policies on parental control over classroom materials.

As part of that reform, a whole slew of books used in Richland schools has come under scrutiny.

Snow Falling on Cedars was challenged by a member of a separate group that seeks to inform parents about books it deems questionable. The challenge has wound its way through district offices and will meet its final stage of appeal during a special board meeting tonight.

The 5:30 p.m. meeting at the Administrative Service Center on Snow Avenue is open to the public, but will allow comments only from the parties in the appeal.

Three months ago, Calvin Manning of West Richland asked that Snow Falling on Cedars be banned from the classroom because it is inappropriate for high school students.

The 1994 novel, which won multiple national awards, tells the story of a trial in a fictitious Puget Sound community in the 1950s. A Japanese-American man is accused of killing a fisherman.

The story deals with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the property rights of interned citizens. It also addresses racism and an interracial love affair.

Manning is one of about a dozen parents who got together in 2009 to speak to the school board about literature used in classrooms. The group last year started a website -- www.thebookbuzz.org -- on which it grades books according to how much of their contents the group finds offensive.

In sifting through the long list of books used in Richland's English classes, Manning came across Guterson's Snow.

The AP class in which the book is listed as an option is open to seniors and juniors at Hanford High, although it's mainly taken by seniors, said Superintendent Jim Busey.

Manning's youngest daughter is a junior in the district, he said, but is not in the class that potentially could read Snow.

The book has not been read in the AP class this year so far, said Bobbi Buttars, assistant principal at Hanford.

Manning took his complaint to administrators at Hanford first and was denied. He then appealed to the Instructional Materials Committee, or IMC.

The committee is made up of six teachers, two administrators and seven parents. It reviewed the claims to the book's merits, looked at the profanity highlighted by Manning and voted 9-5 to keep the novel on the reading list. One member abstained.

Manning then appealed to Busey. The superintendent supported the IMC's decision.

Manning appealed to the school board.

His e-mail to the board president objects to the novel's "sexually explicit descriptions, extreme vulgarity and other obscene ... material." He also writes, "It appears to me, and to others, that this novel and others with similar content are specifically prohibited by RSD policy."

The policy he refers to is not the one dealing with appropriateness of curricula. That -- policy 2311 -- only says that materials must be selected considering the "age level and maturity of the students with whom they will be used."

That rule was followed with Snow, Busey said. "This is a highly performing group of students," he said. "They are discussing the concepts (of the novel) at very high levels."

But Manning and Dave Garber, a fellow member in the parent group who objected to a book last year, have said novels such as this violate Richland policy 3220, which deals with the use of profanity by students while on school grounds.

Busey rejected that claim.

"Reading the literature isn't the same as using these words," he told the Herald. "These students discuss the message, the storylines and the lessons to be learned (from the novel)."

In his appeal to the board, Manning also criticized the review process for not providing "objective criteria as to what is and is not acceptable."

The IMC's nonvoting chairman agreed with that assessment.

John Steach, deputy superintendent and former school board president, said he hopes to get some guidance from the board tonight on what criteria the IMC should use in the future.

This is important to him because there are 67 books left to be reviewed by the committee.

After Garber objected to the use of a novel in Richland schools last year, the school board initiated several reforms. It changed the make-up of the IMC, gave students and parents the option to choose an alternative to any book they find offensive, and declared that all books -- including those considered supplementary because only small groups of students read them -- must undergo the full review process.

That meant 68 books that had so far only been reviewed by each respective school's language arts department now had to go through the IMC and the school board. Only Snow has made it through the process.

But Steach hopes that once the board decides on the one formal complaint it has received so far, the IMC can work through the rest of the pile a lot quicker. He said he plans on presenting seven books to the board for approval during a March board meeting.

The committee seemed to be in agreement on its first book from the long list Tuesday. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey got little support from those who seemed to be the least willing to ban a book from school.

The most vocal member in opposition Tuesday was Garber. He joined the IMC as a parent representative after last year's heated arguments.