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School Board Won't Ban Controversial Books : Education: Redondo Beach trustees reject the efforts of a conservative group to shelve "Impressions" series.

February 11, 1990|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buttressed by the support of numerous parents and teachers and a national anti-censorship group, the Redondo Beach school trustees have rejected efforts by a conservative Christian organization to ban the controversial "Impressions" series of grade-school readers.

The unanimous decision Tuesday--which the board had indicated was likely almost from the moment the first protests about the series emerged in Redondo Beach--was hailed by the books' proponents, who see the vote as a turning point.

"This decision will resound around the state of California and the nation and give hope to other school districts facing this kind of intimidation," said Michael Hudson, vice president of People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based group that monitors First Amendment issues.

Although the school district allows parents to choose an alternate text to any school material they find objectionable, the opponents of the "Impressions" series said it was so morbid and frightening to children that it should be shelved. They said they were disappointed by the decision and that they will remember it when election time rolls around.

"I can't support a school district that will allow this kind of garbage to be taught," said Diane Ryan, who, like most of the Redondo Beach parents protesting the series, is a member of the fundamentalist Hope Chapel-Hermosa Beach. Ryan and her husband formed the Coalition of Concerned Parents to oppose the books after they saw stories about sorcery in her fourth-grader's reading book.

Ryan and her husband, John, said they plan to take their two children out of the Redondo Beach schools and enroll them in private school because of the decision. John Ryan said he knows of "10 or 15" parents in his coalition who plan to ask school officials to assign their children an alternative reading text so they won't have to use the "Impressions" books.

John Ryan said he had gathered 550 signatures on a petition opposing the books, but board members said that was a small percentage of the more than 7,000 parents who have children enrolled in the district.

The series, which was approved after a lengthy review last year as the basic reading text for fourth- and fifth-graders and kindergartners in Redondo Beach, has generated criticism nationwide and stirred dispute in a number of the more than 40 California school districts using the texts, Hudson said.

The Hacienda La Puente Unified and East Whittier City school districts dropped the books late last year, and a number of local districts, including Redondo Beach and Lawndale, have been targeted by opponents of the series since then.

The series is published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston of Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The books are available in the Canadian version, which Redondo Beach is using, and in a toned-down U.S. version.

Redondo Beach school officials told the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 at the meeting Tuesday night that the Canadian text had been the district textbook selection committee's unanimous choice because of its emphasis on cultural diversity, imagination and literature.

But parents--citing one poem about excreta-eating pigs and other spooky stories and poems about monsters, witches and magical spells--said the books were giving their children bad dreams, teaching them to disrespect adults and promoting witchcraft, which some fundamentalist Christians view as a satanic religion.

"What's at stake here is our children's hearts and minds--their inner beings," said Gregory Allen, a Redondo Beach parent and psychologist who asked the board to shelve the books.

"We're giving our kids fear (in these books), but we're not showing them ways they can overcome it," he said.

Countering that view were other parents who said the books, which also contain selections by such authors as C.S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder, were of high literary quality and so interesting that many of their children were excited for the first time about reading and writing.

"This series has exposed our children to only good," argued Redondo Beach parent Kate Griffin. "It has opened their eyes to how the rest of the world's cultures developed. It has given them the joy for literature and the desire to read."

The board vote, which followed an hour of pro-and-con testimony from the audience, was a carry-over from a meeting two months ago, when the Ryans first outlined the argument against "Impressions" and asked that it be shelved.

The trustees took the matter under advisement. However, in interviews afterward, they said they had no intention of revoking their approval of the books and that they perceived the request as an attempt at censorship.

Nonetheless, the matter was slated for a vote, which took place with no board discussion, except for a statement read by board President Rebecca Sargent, who said the criticisms "contained a clear lack of knowledge and, in some cases, untruths and innuendo."

Afterward, board member Valerie Dombrowski said she was elated that proponents of the books turned out for the vote, and board Vice President Bart Swanson called the movement against the texts "overkill."

"They're just going out of their way to look for evil," Swanson said. "There are maybe four or five stories (about witchcraft) out of the whole thing."

The two also downplayed the potential impact the vote might have on their campaigns. Both are up for reelection in 1991, as is trustee Sylvia Zellers, who characterized the Ryans and their group as "a very small and narrow minority."

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