Book controversy proves merits of Richland's policy

Debates over a book's merit as part of high school curriculum are nothing new.

Recent articles about one Richland parent's issue with the award-winning novel Snow Falling on Cedars brought the issue to the forefront once again.

The parent exhausted every possible level of appeal under Richland's review process in his attempt to ban the book from use in district classrooms.

The final ruling by the school board was to leave the book a choice for students in the advanced placement English language and composition class at Hanford High School.

The episode was a good test of a process put in place a year ago, when the district adopted new policies on parental controls over classroom materials.

The outcome proved the revised approach works. The parent's concerns got a fair hearing, and the book remains an option for study.

The parent, who does not have a child in one of the classes that includes the book as part of its course work, is hardly the first to challenge a book for what he called "lewd, vulgar and profane" language.

All manner of great novels have been disputed in school districts across our nation, challenging some of the very basic notions of learning. It seems folks who really want to can find something offensive in everything from dictionaries to Pulitzer Prize winners.

What often gets lost in the furor of those who deem the material inappropriate are the very merits of the writing itself.

Snow Falling on Cedars is based in Washington state and deals with an issue particularly relevant to our community: the prejudice against and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

We're guessing it is hard for today's high school juniors and seniors to believe that an entire segment of our population could be rounded up, stripped from their homes and shipped to forsaken camps to live in unforgiving conditions just because of their heritage. And that the practice happened right here.

The parent has argued that he was not trying to ban the book outright, just remove it as choice for the students in the AP class. He's splitting hairs.

In some ways, banning a book from the school system is a greater act of censorship than banning it from public libraries. It prevents not only access to the text but also an academic discussion of the ideas and issues the book explores.

It's not the first book this parent has hoped to have removed. He's part of a group that ranks books used in Richland classes on their perceived levels of offense.

Judging from the grades given by the parent group, they're pretty easy to offend. It's a rare book that gets an "A" grade from them. They equate an "A" book to a G-rated movie for content.

Most high school juniors and seniors are capable of handling language and themes beyond that kind of rating, if the material has value in the learning process.

As much as we would like to protect our children from the real world, it's the school's job to help prepare them for it. Literature that deals with complex and challenging issues in a serious way can help our teachers fulfill their role.

Not every parent has the same tolerance for curse words and sexual references. That's fine. Under Richland's policy, parents have the right to remove any book from their children's reading lists.

It's tough to set appropriate standards for high school literature courses. The parents who find fault with some of Richland's selections no doubt mean well.

But the most easily offended parents can't be allowed set the standards. There needs to be a better system for evaluating books than counting the number of curse words.

Fortunately, Richland has one.

That Snow Falling on Cedars made it through the new review process is a testament to the system.

It carefully was reviewed by district administrators, the Instructional Materials Committee -- a combination of teachers, administrators and parents -- the superintendent, and finally the school board. And it passed each test.

We're sure the controversy achieved one thing: Not one student had read Snow Falling on Cedars as part of the class this year.

Now we're almost certain there will be a long list of students who want to read it.