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Dictionary definition raises ruckus at Menifee school

The school district pulls the Merriam Webster 10th Collegiate editions off classroom shelves for study by a newly formed committee after a parent complains about explicit definitions of sexual terms.

January 25, 2010|By David Kelly

It may be the last word in spelling bees and Scrabble, but Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary now faces a new if unlikely notoriety: being too sexy for its own good.

That was the verdict from at least one parent in Menifee last week who called the principal of Oak Meadows Elementary School to say that entries describing oral sex in the dictionary were too explicit. The books were immediately pulled off the shelves and "temporarily housed off location" until a committee could determine their suitability for children.

"The dictionaries have not been banned," said Betti Cadmus, a spokeswoman for the Menifee Union School District in conservative southwest Riverside County on Monday. "There was a growing concern by parents that some of the words were not age-appropriate."

A panel of parents, teachers and administrators will meet later this week to comb the dictionary for potentially graphic words or definitions and issue a report within a month.

"They will determine the extent to which the dictionaries support the curriculum, the age appropriateness of the materials and its suitability for the age levels of the students," Cadmus said. "It's not going to be an arbitrary decision."

The dictionaries were in the reference section of the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms.

School board President Rita Peters supports the committee but believes the district was pressured into forming it because of one unidentified but vocal parent.

"I think it's absurd that we will remove dictionaries from our library especially because these dictionaries are the same ones we use in our spelling bees," she said. "I think we are approaching censorship with this. If they ban this book, they better clean house and go through all of them. What's good for one is good for all. I think we will open a big can of worms if these books are banned. It's the dictionary after all, c'mon."

When it comes to book banning, dictionaries are generally off limits, experts say. Volumes like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "The Catcher in the Rye" are the usual targets because of their controversial themes, language or profanity.

The California Department of Education said it had no authority over what Menifee does with its dictionaries because they are not considered instructional materials.

"This is a decision only a local school board can make because we don't recommend dictionaries," said Tina Jung, a department spokeswoman. "People ask us to ban books all the time. We are not in the business of banning books. When a topic like this comes up, parents and children should have a conversation about what is appropriate to look up."

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which fights for the public's right to information and free speech, said efforts to ban books "lead nowhere good."

"It's not a solution because it takes you to the next book and the next book after that," he said. "Eventually you end up with a library that is empty or partially full of dumbed-down or redacted versions of books."

Given what's on television, let alone the Internet, he said, it is refreshing that students are actually looking up sexual terms in a dictionary.

"At the end of the day, if my kid is digging through the Merriam Webster dictionary to find words he and his friends are going to giggle over but along the way find other words they will use, I think that is a day well spent in school," he said.

david.kelly@latimes.com

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