School official wants a do-over on review panel

LITCHFIELD – Now it is a school board member’s turn to cry foul over the books used in a particular high school English class.

Litchfield School Board member Jason Guerrette said the membership of a committee formed to review short stories used in a Campbell High School class should not have been hand picked by administrators.

“Considering the hot topic that it is, I would have much preferred there was an open call for parents that were interested,” he said. “They should have opened it up to the public and asked for volunteers.”

The committee includes five teachers, seven parents, five current students and two recent graduates, Cutler said.

School board Chairman Dennis Miller said board policy dictates that curriculum committees are formed at the discretion of the superintendent, Dr. Elaine Cutler, and include teachers, administrators and, sometimes, parents and students.

“It’s beyond what any member of the school board thinks,” he said.Cutler said several people volunteered to be on the committee following a well-attended school board meeting in June about the stories. Others volunteered after an e-mail she sent to parents.

“The committee has about 20 people on it, and we felt that was sufficient,” Cutler said. “It’s being done according to policy.”

The committee was formed this summer after an uproar over four short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, David Sedaris and Laura Lippman. CHS Principal Bob Manseau pulled the stories from the curriculum after a group of parents complained about the mature themes in the story, saying that a teacher’s decision to include the stories was a “mistake in judgment.”

Another group of parents and students then protested that decision. Eventually the school’s English department head, Kathleen Reilly, resigned.

The school board adopted Cutler’s plan to form a committee of parents, teachers and students to review the stories used in the course and another committee to review all of the materials used in the district for age-appropriateness. Both committees will forward recommendations to the school board.

Guerrette said he expected the administration would publicly solicit volunteers for the committee but learned that the 20-member committee, including school board member Cindy Couture, had already been formed and has started meeting.

Couture said she doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the stories being included in the curriculum, but said she does think parents have a right to be more informed about what their kids are reading.

“I certainly understand their point-of-view and certainly I think it’s important for them to know what their children are learning,” she said. “It’s my belief that parents have the right to be responsible and know what their kids are studying in school.”

Cutler said the committee is facing a deadline. She hopes it will forward its recommendations to the board by Aug. 4, in time for the course syllabus and description to be updated while leaving students time to find a new course if they want to drop it.

Guerrette wants the school board to intervene, disband the committee and create an application process so anyone can volunteer to help vet the stories.

“Doing the right thing is important to me. If that means I have to push the envelope a little bit to make sure people are getting the information, it is what it is,” he said.

Dissolving the committee and starting anew is possible, Miller said, but not necessarily the best course of action.

“It would have to be a board vote, and we would have to basically change our policy,” he said. “I would prefer to delegate this to the superintendent and let it run its course.”

The four stories were included in the required reading list of an upper-level English elective.

Lippman’s story “The Crack Cocaine Diet” includes explicit sexual language. King’s “Survivor Type” features a surgeon stranded on a deserted island who amputates his own limbs for food.

Some parents also protested a Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is ostensibly centered on a couple’s deliberation about abortion, although the word “abortion” does not appear in the text.

Sedaris’ “I Like Guys” was objected to because some parents don’t want their children learning about homosexuality in school.

Parent Sue Ann Johnson was one of those who complained about the stories. She said the argument is about appropriateness, not censorship.

The stories are not appropriate “for developing minds that are very impressionable,” she said.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to bring things into the light,” she said.

Several current and former CHS students spoke at a school board meeting condemning the decision to exclude the stories from the class, including 2008 graduate Emilia Dilola.

“I’m ashamed this happened in my town,” she told the school board. “Sheltering people doesn’t help anyone learn. It just dumbs down the school. It just sickens me that this can happen in my town.”