HIGHLAND PARK — In mid-September, about two weeks after sophomores at Highland Park High School began reading The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, in their English classes, they were told to stop.
That book and six others were being pulled from the curriculum over parental complaints about sexual content and explicit passages, school officials said. The suspension, however, did not last long. An uproar prompted Highland Park’s superintendent, Dawson Orr, to reverse the decision two weeks later.
The other books were The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie; Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse; An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; and The Working Poor, by David Shipler.
“There are no banned or suspended books in the Highland Park Independent School District today,” Orr said. “We are delivering curriculum to kids; we are using instructional resources; we are working very hard to deliver a level of transparency.”
The return of the books to classrooms has not ended the intense debate over who should determine what is read in public classrooms. Since September, two opposing groups of parents have mobilized.
Speak Up for Standards wants parents to have more control over removing literature they find offensive. Its leaders include Tavia Hunt, who is married to the grandson of the oil tycoon H.L. Hunt.
HP Kids Read says decisions about reading materials should be left to the teachers. The group’s efforts have caught the attention of national anti-censorship advocates.
Scrutiny of the books began in response to concerns from parents as early as last May, Orr said. It continued over the summer and as the school year began as emails circulated highlighting sex scenes and references to rape, incest, prostitution and abortion in selected books. In Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, a 2008 novel that follows a race car driver’s struggle to raise his daughter after his wife’s death and is told from the perspective of a dog, parents identified passages they found troublesome, like a scene in which a 15-year-old girl makes sexual advances toward the driver.
Orr said the district hoped the temporary suspension of the books would “de-escalate the situation.”
Instead, the move shocked many other parents in this Dallas enclave.
“We’ve been in this school district for 14 years, and this is the first time any of this has popped up,” said John Spicer, who has two children in the Highland Park district and one who has already graduated. “Kids had books figuratively pulled out of their hands.”
At a November school board meeting, the issue was still smoldering. Marie Briner, an elementary school parent, said she was alarmed to learn of the content of some books in the curriculum. As a former Dallas County prosecutor in the child abuse division, she said that if she had found the material in a police investigation, she would have entered it as evidence that a defendant was trying to “groom” potential victims.
“How is this any different than my sex offenders that have a diary of their fantasies? And I have to tell you, it’s not different at all,” she said. Other parents argued that a diverse reading list that reflected a variety of socioeconomic, racial and political viewpoints was essential in the district, which serves students in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the state.
“I love Highland Park, and I’ve always had faith in the district because the parents really insist on academic excellence,” Lynn Dickinson, the parent of an eighth grader, said. “But one thing to me that has always been a drawback is its homogeneous nature.”
On Wednesday, a committee of 12 parents, educators and administrators, which reviewed The Art of Racing in the Rain, determined it was appropriate for students in grade 10 or higher. Parents can still appeal that decision to administrators.
Hunt was the lone dissenter on the committee. In review documents provided by the district she said students could take “concerning messages” from the book on topics like “seduction, rape, child pedophilia, whether oral sex is sex, premarital sex as normative, reincarnation, or that those in authority over them approve of foul language.”
“This New York Times best seller would be a good book for someone to choose to read at the beach in the summer,” she wrote. “Not as required reading. Especially considering the opportunity costs of the literature they missed out on as a result of this assignment.”
Highland Park officials are now reviewing the procedures the district uses to select instructional materials, which Orr said lacked clarity, as well as the process used to challenge those selections. They will present updates to the board on Dec. 9. Teachers and administrators choose which materials are taught under current district policy. The decision whether to ask parental consent for assigned readings is also made at the campus level, said Helen Williams, a spokeswoman for the district.
In an email, Hunt said she hoped the district would adopt changes that include the proposal from Speak Up for Standards, which would require teachers to inform parents before their children are exposed to potentially controversial classroom materials.
Some experts fear an approach requiring parents to sign off on certain books perceived as inflammatory — sometimes referred to as “red flagging” — can have the same effect as pulling books off of library shelves or out of classrooms.
They argue that it stigmatizes texts that have educational value “It’s a prescription for educational chaos,” said Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which has been following the situation in Highland Park since the school suspended use of the books in September. “It is an extremely problematic route for the school to take.”
It can also put a burden on teachers, who must identify potentially inflammatory material and then find alternatives for parents who object to it. In November, the high school’s English department made a pre-emptive move; it sent home a letter asking parents to sign off on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
Millie Davis, who leads the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English, called the Highland Park book suspensions “distressing.”
Over the last five years, she said, her organization had most commonly tackled challenges to modern literature and books with multicultural themes.
“It’s a culture war. I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Davis said. “But nearly every day I put myself in the shoes of the teachers there, and I don’t know how they go to work.”