Top English teacher leaving Campbell

LITCHFIELD – The English Department head who oversaw the curriculum of a Campbell High School class that drew fire from some residents over reading materials has resigned.

Kathleen Reilly submitted her resignation to the School Board on Wednesday, just as school officials, for the second straight week, heard from citizens about four books that featured passages about abortion, drug use, cannibalism and homosexuality.

The stories were part of an elective English class for upperclassmen.

When asked if Reilly resigned because of the controversy, School Superintendent Elaine Cutler replied: “I wouldn’t say that. It certainly was Kathleen’s decision. Many of us really tried hard to have her continue her teaching career at Campbell . . . It certainly will be a tremendous loss to the school.”

Reilly didn’t immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment.

A teacher at Campbell since the school opened in 2000, Reilly has also served as the English department’s curriculum facilitator for several years, Cutler said.

“There were certainly many attempts by members of the administration, who asked her to reconsider her decision,” Cutler said.

“People choose to resign for numerous reasons,” Cutler added.

Last week, during the School Board’s public comment session, about 25 parents and residents objected to stories by satirist David Sedaris, crime author Laura Lippman, horror novelist Stephen King and novelist Ernest Hemingway.

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.

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

And the parents objected to Sedaris’ “I Like Guys” because they said they don’t want their children learning about homosexuality in school.

The morning after the meeting, Principal Bob Manseau said he removed the stories from the class’ assigned reading list because he decided the material was not age appropriate. A teacher had chosen the books to pique the students’ interest in reading, but Manseau said last week that, in hindsight, this decision was “a mistake in judgment.”

On Wednesday, school board members said they had no interest in censoring books. They voted for several measures that intend to implement more oversight on how curriculum materials are approved.

Parent Sue Ann Johnson, who objected to the four books and corresponding questions that students had to answer about the materials, said of Reilly, “I feel bad about anyone who loses a job – how hard it is to make money in this economy.”

Johnson was apparently the first parent to approach Meredith Potter, the teacher of “Short Stories”, the upperclassman elective class that included the four books. In an email dated June 8, Johnson questioned Potter about the subject material.

Potter – in an e-mail provided by Johnson – replied that the books highlighted “the importance of literature as a means to prompt meaningful discussion about many issues, similar to our prior discussions of mental health, racial equality, and the Holocaust.”

The books were part of a short-stories class unit called “Love/Gender/Family Unit”, Potter added.

Potter also wrote that she didn’t choose the books, and asked Johnson to direct further questions to Reilly, the curriculum facilitator.

In an interview Thursday, Johnson said she felt her concerns weren’t addressed by the faculty, which led her to bring the matter before the school board.

Johnson said that since the controversy erupted, some in town contend that she and other objecting citizens – including Kevin Smith, the executive director of the conservative Cornerstone Policy Research – are forwarding a Christian agenda.

But, she said, the residents’ concerns should be “very clear to everyone.”

The material is 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.”

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Johnson said the issue wasn’t about censorship. Rather, she said, parents should worry more about a “liberal agenda” at the school, rather than stories in a particular class.

“There is an agenda, people. Wake up,” she said. “We are desensitizing our children to violence. We’re desensitizing them to sex. We’re desensitizing them to drugs. We’re talking about the hearts and minds of the future of America.”

Northeastern University student Andy Towne, a 2007 Campbell graduate who had Reilly as an English teacher, wrote a letter to the Telegraph about the issue.

“She was a really great teacher,” Towne said in an interview Thursday. “She did a really good job and had an impact on everyone.”

Towne said he didn’t read the four stories in question as part of a Campbell class, but has since read most of them, except for “I Like Guys.”

At Campbell, he was assigned stories that explored sexuality, rape, infidelity, murder and suicide, he said. Those stories – “Johnny Got His Gun,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Of Mice And Men,” and “Romeo and Juliet” – were not only required reading at Campbell but are at high schools across the country, he said.

Parents have a right to object to stories and what their children learn in high school, Towne said. And parents should have access to a reading list, and the ability to approve or disapprove the materials, he said. But Towne added that the protested stories are age appropriate.

“(Reading) these stories in class is not to teach students to be gay, to use drugs, to engage in sexual activity, or to participate in cannibalism,” Towne wrote in his letter to the editor. “Rather, the discussion of these real life topics engages Campbell’s students in society.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or