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School Book Challenges on Steady Course, Report Finds : Education: 150 districts have fielded complaints, Cal State Fullerton professor says.

December 07, 1990|KRISTINA LINDGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER and Compiled by Times researcher Michael Meyers

Books, films and other school materials have been challenged by parents and organized groups in about 150 California school districts that responded to the first comprehensive statewide survey on the subject, a Cal State Fullerton professor reported Thursday.

But challengers succeeded in removing the objectionable book or material from schools only 13% of the time, education professor Louise Adler found. In 71% of the cases, schools continued to use the book or film, or excused the child of the challenger.

About half of the 300 challenges reported during the last two years were based on religious grounds or against depictions of Satan or witchcraft in such classics as Shakespeare's "Macbeth" or "Snow White." Popular films, such as "E.T.," and Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue also have met with challenges from people who object to their being shown at school or available in school libraries.

But the phenomenon is far from being a trend on the rise, Adler said. People have objected to what children read for generations, and such challenges generally go unreported in all but the most sensational cases, she said.

"This is not new--it's been going on ever since colonial times in this country," said Adler, who noted that more than 54% of the administrators said the number of challenges during the survey period, from autumn of 1988 through spring of 1990, was the same.

"It's part of having common schools that are meant for everyone in a very pluralistic society with many different religious and ethnic groups," she said. "There's that inherent tension there."

What is disturbing, Adler said, is that nearly a fourth of the 421 California school districts surveyed lack formal policies to handle such parental objections. "It means that either a district will not give someone a fair hearing, or someone will just remove a text without really considering what should be done," said Adler, a former school board member of the Saddleback Valley Unified District in Mission Viejo.

According to national watchdog groups, censorship is on the rise in schools and libraries across the country. People for the American Way, a Washington-based advocacy group opposed to what it views as censorship, documented 244 challenges nationwide during the 1989-90 school year, with California accounting for nearly a third of the incidents.

Adler said she launched the survey last year after discovering there had been no comprehensive assessment of the number and type of challenges in California school districts.

Forty percent of the state's districts responded. Of those that did, 35.6% reported challenges in the two school years. Only about a fourth of the reported challenges were covered by the media, the survey shows.

The most challenged text or material was the "Impressions" reading series, an anthology of stories for elementary school students that mentions witches, goblins and other monsters in Halloween stories and other fables. Critics persuaded the school board in the Capistrano Unified District to reject the series.

"S atanic and witchcraft were the most cited words used by people who challenged texts and school materials. Religious conflict was the second most used term. More than 65% of the challengers were parents, and many of those were members of religious groups.

Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Assn., said the findings show that the threat of censorship is rife in California.

"These attacks are not just plain challenges," Foglia said. "They are a direct attack on our democratic and educational institutions. . . . And it's not happening in just a few places. It's happening across the country."

While he agreed that parents have the right to censor what their own child reads or sees, they do not have that right for the children of others.

"We need to combat this kind of censorship and make sure our children are not deprived of the opportunity to look at a wide variety of literature and not be led by these religious zealots who want to have only their point of view shown," Foglia said.

But the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, whose Anaheim-based Coalition for Traditional Values led the fight to remove the "Impressions" series in at least 10 school districts around the state, accused Adler of deliberately downplaying the breadth of the movement because of her own liberal bias.

"She's grinding her own ax, which is to put down those individuals who feel their rights have been trampled on," Sheldon said.

He added that it is appropriate for districts to resolve parents' challenges by keeping the objectionable material away from their child, a position both Adler and Foglia support.

But in the case of "Impressions," which he described as promoting satanism and voyeurism, Sheldon said it should be kept from the eyes of all children.

"When you promote Satanism and put down a religious value and belief system, the state has no business in that," he said.

Targeted School Materials Listed below are the books, magazines and films used by schools that are most frequently challenged by parents and other groups, along with the reasons for the challenges. Materials Frequently Challenged Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger Death of a Salesman, Arthur Millelr ET (the film), Steven Spielberg Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck Halloween ABC, Eve Merrian Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale The Lorax, Dr. Seuss Macbeth, William Shakespeare Of Mice and men, John Steinbeck Snow White, The brothers Grimm Sports Illustrated, swimsuit issue Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum 1984, George Orwell Reason for Challenge Too Sexual: 13.3% Religious Conflict: 17.0 Satanic/ Witchcraft: 23.7 Out of Date / Poor Role Model: 1.5 Offensive to Minority: 8.1 Not Age Appropiate: 11.9 Controversial: 11.9 Violence/Profanity: 12.6% Source: Cal State Fullerton study by education professor Louise Adler

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