Freedom to Read Week 1997: The View from the Schools.by Elizabeth Morton.
Reprinted with the permission of the Canadian Library Association.
The 13th annual Freedom to Read Week will be celebrated across Canada Feb. 24 to March 2. Sponsored each year by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council, Freedom to Read Week is an opportunity to discuss, study and respond to the various ways in which intellectual freedom is being challenged in Canada today.
This year, Feliciter takes a look at censorship of reading material in Canadian schools. School librarians and teachers face well meaning groups and individuals, speaking out in favour of exercising stricter controls over materials for young people. Since educators are deemed to act in the parent's place (in loco parentis), they have to be prepared when parents let them know that they feel their family's values are not being represented in the teaching materials their children encounter in the school.
During the past year, Elizabeth Roberts, a K-12 school principal in Rockglen, Sask., and a past president of the Saskatchewan School Library Association, carried out a survey of censorship in Saskatchewan schools. This research, carried out under the auspices of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, formed the basis for Roberts' M.Ed. thesis recently accepted by the Faculty of Education, University of Regina.
As part of her study of the censorship activity occurring in public schools in Saskatchewan between Sept. 1992 and June 1995, Roberts surveyed 546 school Iibraries in the province. The response rate was approximately 62 per cent. Roberts' study was modeled on the study conducted by Dave Jenkinson in Manitoba (see 'Censorship Iceberg: Results of a Survey of Challenges in Public and School Libraries,' Canadian Library Journal 43 (Feb. 1986): 7-21). Roberts reports that her results were similar.
She found that one-third of the responding schools had received challenges to one or more resources during the three-year period. In addition, Roberts reports there was strong evidence from the 'comments' section of the questionnaire that the practice of soft censorship was prevalent. (Roberts defines 'soft' or 'spontaneous' censorship as censorship that takes place either at the time of the selection of resources or prior to the time when the resource is placed on the shelves.)
"This kind of censorship takes place despite the fact that the resource has not been challenged by any external person or group," said Roberts. "In other words, resources are removed from the library because, in the opinion of someone on the library or school staff, the resource either will corrupt the reader's morals or will be found offensive by parents or other members of the community. The problem of soft censorship is particularly pronounced in the rural schools, where the libraries tend to be staffed by teaching assistants (TAs), not teacher-librarians. Some TAs are on a mission. The amount of soft censorship revealed in this study appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, although censors generally exist along a continuum stretching from the extreme right-wing perspective to the extreme left, most of the activity in Saskatchewan school libraries at present is in response to censors who represent right-wing interests and issues."
In all, 151 resources, including books, periodicals, videotapes, and plays, were challenged. The majority - 66 per cent - of challenges occurred in schools in rural centres with a population of less than 5,000. The majority of schools that experienced challenges (61 per cent) were K - 8 schools. Challenges were mainly brought by parents or guardians (62 per cent), but fully one-third were the result of actions by school staff.
"How does one implement resource-based learning in this environment?" Roberts asked. "There is a lack of awareness that intellectual freedom is, indeed, an issue for students and the school libraries that serve them." However, she was quick to point out that teacher-librarians, where they exist, are doing a good job.
Violence was the number one reason cited for challenges in the urban schools; witchcraft topped the list in rural schools. In 49 per cent of cases, the resources were retained; in the remaining cases, the item was removed, altered or restricted in use. The only factor that had any significant effect on the outcome of challenges, Roberts found, was the presence of fully implemented, consistently used selection and challenge policies in the school.
"Despite this fact," noted Roberts, "and despite the fact that selection and challenge policies are required by the Saskatchewan Education Act, 31 per cent of schools that responded reported that they did not have any such policies in place. The largest number of schools without policies were in rural areas of the province. This finding appeared to be strongly related to the qualifications of the library personnel. Where a teacher-librarian was employed, there was almost always a selection policy in place." Most teacher-librarians were employed in urban schools.
Roberts' report recommends that
Roberts commented, "Teaching information-handling skills should be monitored through the supervisory cycle and should be supported through practical in-service sessions and demonstration lessons that illustrate how to incorporate into the classroom the teaching strategies that integrate the teaching of skills and content."
- in-service sessions on the value of protecting intellectual freedom be implemented in Saskatchewan schools to raise awareness of the problem of censorship
- funding be provided to assist school library staff faced with litigation as a result of their support for the principle of intellectual freedom
- a concentrated effort be made to require the teaching of information handling skills to all students to develop informed, discriminating consumers of all types of information
- school libraries be staffed with qualified teacher-librarians
- the Saskatchewan School Trustees Association and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation ensure that all school divisions have in place and adhere to, effective selection and challenge policies
- less confrontational language be developed to use in discussing controversial resources
When asked about the implications of her study's findings, Roberts responded, "In a resource-based curriculum, censorship narrows the scope of a library collection and, thus, narrows students' thinking. Censorship creates a restrictive atmosphere in the classroom and limits the flexibility of a teacher's instructional strategies. It contravenes the spirit of the goals of education in this province, and it makes it difficult to encourage the development of a multicultural, global outlook among students. Censorship stifles creative and critical thinking by narrowing the viewpoints available to students. And because it restricts formats, reading levels and the number of resources available on various topics, censorship restricts the ability of the teacher to adapt the curriculum to the learner."
Interestingly, the title or series that received the most challenges in Saskatchewan was the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. And in Nova Scotia, the Goosebumps series and the Fear Street series, also by Stine, were challenged early in 1995 by parents of the Halifax County-Bedford District School Board (which has since amalgamated with two other school boards to form the Halifax Regional School Board). Graham Pierce, a teacher-librarian with the board's department of research and technology, reported that this was the first time the board has had a formal censorship challenge.
The case began when three parents sent a letter to every elementary and junior high school principal in the board. "The letter complained that books in the extremely popular Goosebumps series and the Fear Street series might 'develop unhealthy, harmful thoughts and behaviour in children,"' explained Pierce. "The parents believed these 'horror-thrillers' would confuse young readers to the extent that they would 'no longer be able to choose right from wrong.' Excerpts, taken out of context, proved their points."
The letter requested the removal of these books from the library and all classrooms. The parents also suggested the use of book clubs be discontinued because they promote these books.
According to Pierce, reaction on the part of the principals to the letter varied. Some immediately removed the books, others sought advice from teacher-librarians, while most simply did not know what course of action to take.
"Eventually," said Pierce, "the complainants sent their letter to the full school board and asked that the books be banned from all elementary and junior high schools."
Some board members agreed and were quite ready to pull the 'evil literature' from the shelves and banish it to the garbage can, reported Pierce. "The board members were unaware, as were most principals, that the board had adopted a selection of learning resources policy in 1991." Included in the policy is a procedure for public complaints about instructional materials.
According to the policy, the challenged titles were to remain in circulation while a reconsideration committee was struck to look into the complaints. The reconsideration committee consisted of a senior administrator, a junior high school teacher, an elementary teacher-librarian (Pierce), a parent trustee from an elementary school, and a parent trustee from a junior high school. The committee was chaired by Jane Thornley, the board's supervisor of information technology and services, who has been a teacher-librarian and English teacher at the junior high level and is a past president of the Canadian School Library Association.
The reconsideration committee read every book that had been challenged, heard submissions from students, parents and teachers on both sides of the issue, and deliberated for a total of 27 hours. Each one of the books was read cover to cover by at least one member of the committee.
Pierce recalled that one group of parents submitted what they stated were 400 letters supporting their position. However, the committee found there were 229 form letters in total, only 183 of which were signed by residents of the board. "Because these were solicited form letters," said Pierce, "we made random calls to the signees. Of all the people we spoke to, none had read the books completely and many were responding to pre-selected excerpts provided for them."
In its final report in June 1995, the committee strongly endorsed the board's instructional resources policy. It also recommended that
- the responsibility for the selection of all books and learning resources be co-ordinated only by professional staff, such as teachers and teacher-librarians (as stipulated by the existing policy)
- teachers and teacher-librarians be actively involved in assisting students to select reading materials according to age/grade appropriateness and the individual needs of the student
- the board develop a curriculum component to deal with violence and abuse in society for all grade levels, building on existing initiatives, such as peace education, anti-violence education, and conflict resolution training
- each school invite parents to become actively involved in their children's recreational reading
- all staff become familiar with the complete selection of learning resources policy, including the procedure steps and the form letter
- each title be considered on its own merit during the selection process, and all materials be selected according to the criteria of the policy based on the needs of students and staff of each individual school
The committee pointed out that particular attention must be paid in combination elementary/junior schools and junior/senior high schools to ensure that materials are clearly designated and professional staff are involved in guiding students to reading materials. As well, the committee recommended that if there are any materials to which parents wish their own children not to have access, the parent should forward those titles or authors to both the teacher-librarian and the classroom teacher. The committee encouraged the board to develop a brochure for parents.
Finally, the committee found that the challenged books written by Christopher Pike and L. J. Smith are not normally age - or interest - level appropriate for elementary grades and should, therefore, not be included in the board's elementary school libraries. In addition, the challenged books in the Fear Street series are not considered age-appropriate for elementary students and should, therefore, not be included in the board's elementary school libraries. However, the committee found that the challenged books in the Goosebumps series are age-appropriate and should not be removed from the board's elementary school libraries.
"The board rejected the report at first," Pierce noted, "but after they had actually read it, the recommendations in the report did pass by a close vote."
Pierce commented that school boards that do not have policies that define the criteria for selecting learning materials are going to have a very difficult time resolving challenges to resources.
"School boards must recognize that professional expertise is required when choosing and evaluating books and other learning materials for our students," stated Pierce. "Public input is vital, but final decisions must be left to teacher-librarians and teachers. After all, we are the ones held responsible when the complainants come calling!
"It was quite a six months," he concluded. "There was coverage on the TV news and in the newspapers. It was a hot issue, and as a member of the committee, I found that my professional reputation was on the line."
The Canadian Library Association and the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council (BPC) - of which CLA is a member - acknowledge the ongoing commitment of Canadian librarians and educators to intellectual freedom. The work of the reconsideration committee of the Halifax Regional School Board and Elizabeth Roberts' survey are part of that commitment.
Elizabeth Morton is editor, monographs at CLA. She was editor of CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People from 1987 to 1994. My thanks to Elizabeth Roberts and to Graham Pierce for providing me with background information. Copies of Elizabeth Roberts' thesis are available from the University of Regina; copies of her complete report may also be obtained from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. A summary of Roberts' study is also appearing in the January/ February 1997 issue of FreeLance, published by the guild. A write-up of the Goosebumps case by Graham Pierce appeared in the Sept. 1995 issue of the Nova Scotia School Library Association Bulletin.
Reprinted with the permission of the Canadian Library Association.
Read How You Can Observe Freedom to Read Week
Copyright © 1997 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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