Republic schools draw national attention by banning classic novel

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.

COLUMBIA — Former Republic Superintendent of Schools Vern Minor was polite about it, but he kindly declined to talk about the library and textbook challenges his district heard in 2010.

“The issue is over,” he said when contacted for this story in the spring. “Everything that's been said is said.”

Much was said at the time after the district generated national headlines by banning the Kurt Vonnegut classic “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Wesley Scroggins, a business professor at Missouri State University, filed a multi-pronged challenge to three novels, as well as a number of textbooks. In doing so, he kindled a major dispute in Republic schools that lasted more than a year and has clearly left a mark on the district.

In addition to the Vonnegut book, Scroggins challenged Sarah Ockler’s “Twenty Boy Summer,” a coming-of-age romance; and “Speak,” a Laurie Halse Anderson novel from 1999 about a high school teenager who is reluctant to talk about her experience being raped and suffers emotional trauma as a result.

Scroggins challenged the books on many grounds, citing “vulgar language” and “pre-marital sex” themes in the books. He labeled them “soft porn.”

Minor, who left his position as superintendent this summer, was one of several school employees in Republic who declined to discuss the events that culminated in the Republic School Board’s banning of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Twenty Boy Summer.” The board decided against banning “Speak,” saying it had a redeeming message.

In 2010, Internet bloggers and YouTubers spread news of several book challenges in Republic. Their critical commentary attracted national attention and led to stories by the Huffington Post and USA Today.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other national groups wrote a letter to the school board asking it to reverse its decision and return the two banned novels to the school library. In a compromise, the board returned them to a “secure” portion of the high school library, where they are now kept in a locked cabinet, and only parents can check them out.

Kari Willis, a high school librarian in Republic, said the book banning is “water under the bridge.” The school board implemented new book selection guidelines in the aftermath of the challenges, though, and she is now more cautious as she selects 400 to 500 books per year to add to the library.

For instance, Willis decided not to purchase a new book by Ockler, because the author's name raised a “red flag.”

The Republic School District had never faced a book challenge before, and officials found themselves in a difficult position, dealing with national publicity over the controversy but with no official policy to guide them. That’s what prompted the school board in 2011 to adopt guidelines for selecting library books.

Applying the guidelines consistently is unrealistic though, former Republic School Board member Ken Knierim said.

“High school libraries receive so many books on an annual basis that it's a monumental task in trying to read every book and then judge that book based on whether or not it is deemed age appropriate for high school students.”

“I would say that the vast majority of school districts don't have any guidelines or board policy as it relates to library books,” Knierim said. “I know that to be true in visiting with board members from other districts.”

Missouri law makes school boards legally responsible for choosing library books but gives them no guidelines.

Curtis Clark, a librarian for 26 years and president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, said book guidelines provide librarians support during a book challenge.

“If I have a parent or a teacher question a book, the (selection policy) is the first thing I fall back on,” Clark said, adding that each school district should develop its own standards because those provided by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lack detail.

Since the school board adopted the district's new selection standards, no other books have been placed in the “secure” area of the Republic High School library. One reason, librarian Willis said, is that the guidelines are not retroactive.

Scroggins, who challenged the books in Republic, is unapologetic. He sees review of textbooks and library materials as a civic duty.

“I’ve been concerned for a long, long time about what our kids are learning in schools… History books these days, American government texts, have a lot of inaccuracies in them, and when it comes to teaching American government and the Constitution and the nature of individual freedom and liberty, I’ve had a lot of concerns for a long time about what our kids are being taught.”

Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Charles Davis.

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