It has been five weeks of turmoil surrounding the suspension of a novel in Teton School District. Rumors of a book ban swirled around the valley, and teachers said they feared for their ability to critically address controversy in an academic setting. Parents were up in arms over the sanctity of their children or inversely the inhibition of their intellectual expansion.
What began as a Facebook post from a disgruntled parent escalated into a community wide conversation aimed to pull the novel “Bless Me, Ultima” from the THS sophomore English class required reading list. After meeting fierce opposition over the novel’s mature content, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme responded by suspending the novel.
For four passionate hours Monday night, the school board addressed these concerns in the crowded Driggs Elementary auditorium during their December meeting.
The evening culminated in an emotional and convicted apology from Woolstenhulme, who admitted to acting hastily in suspending “Bless Me, Ultima” from the curriculum without following the proper procedures dictated by district policy 4120. He said he breeched the trust of the high school staff and the administration under his supervision.
“It’s very important to build trust in our community and in our school district, and I take responsibility for times this year when either my actions or decisions I think have broken down that trust,” said Woolstenhulme in his final recommendation and closing statement to those in attendance. “I recognize that I acted hastily on this, and I see the concern and the issue that the teachers have…[Policy 4120] is the guide that I recognize, I admit and I apologize, I should have been following very specifically. The teachers were working through it, Mr. Mello was working through it and I’m the one that failed and did not follow this policy. That being said, I would recommend that we do allow the English department to use this book. We can go through this grievance policy with those people that have these concerns.”
The focus of Monday’s meeting was intended to discuss district policy as it relates to teaching controversial units, although each policy discussed, 2340, 2500-2540 and 4120, were most recently revised on Aug. 13, 2012.
Although policy 2340 allows “for parents to have their child excused from a topic which may be contrary to their religious or moral values. This shall be done in writing by the parent and include an explanation of the conflict,” no written complaints were received by the English department, Teton High School Principal Frank Mello or Superintendent Woolstenhulme.
It was offered that a committee be formed to handle potentially objectionable material, as allowed by policy 2520, and that policy 2340 be amended so informal, verbal complaints are enough demand action.
However, Board Member Bonnie Etchemendy said she could not support such a group as it could easily take away freedoms. The audience erupted in applause, and was met by an aggressive response noting this meeting would not condone or allow any such outbreak or audience intervention.
Etchemendy did note that the formation of a grievance committee would be beneficial. It was ultimately decided that policy amendments be postponed until the January meeting.
Attention was then turned to a prepared testimony over the value of guiding youths through controversial subject matter from the English teachers who assigned “Bless Me, Ultima.”
In the 51 combined years of teaching experience between Susan Pence, Jason Ruff and Diane Green, they had never been confronted with the prospect of censorship, although within the Teton School District they had taught units that use similar and more vulgar profanity.
“The practice of challenging books like ‘Bless Me, Ultima,’ by isolating words and fragmented scene, disposes of context as it relates to specific uses of profanity,” said Pence to an astute school board. “It ignores the author’s intent; it fuels ignorance; it serves to create shock value; and it denigrates the sprit of the novel.”
Ruff followed her by listing “Huck Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Oedipus Rex,” and many others that use racial slurs, discuss incest, challenge authority and use profanity that, “have fallen prey to ignorance elsewhere, but have been included as literature units at Teton High School.”
Although the English department had not received any written complaints, an alternative piece of literature and corresponding assignment were offered.
Regardless, the school board questioned the teachers, over their definition of appropriateness, following policy and where the breakdown occurred.
“On this policy it talks about relative maturity of the students, we want to prepare our students to be ready for college, but at fifteen years old in a sophomore class, do they really need to be prepared for college?” said school board member Carol Dansie in response. “It talks about community standards and values. Have you considered the standards, morals and values of this community when you’re selecting this book?”
Diane Green addressed each of the points noting that each teacher was intimately familiar with the text and did not find the novel controversial.
Dansie then admitted to having only begun reading the text, but she responded to Green’s naivety towards the novel’s controversial nature.
“You don’t know my kids. My son will come home and tell me every time his coach swears. So, I’m saying you don’t know all students. There are some students that do have sensitivities to more mature material…. Did you follow the policy about letting the parents know beforehand?”
Behind red eyes, Woolstenhulme addressed the teachers with an apology and admission that it was he, not the teachers, who acted out of policy procedure. He said that never in his career had he acted so swiftly or severely and that the distraction in the classroom was not because of the novel but caused by his decision.
The meeting then opened to public statements from concerned parents and community members on the implications of the school board’s impending decision over reinstating the novel.
Janine Jolley addressed the board as a longtime librarian, a mother, an educator and someone who had read the entire novel.
“As some of the teachers said, the book is more, perhaps, than just the swear words … the masturbation scene … the extreme, close-range violence as experienced through the eyes of a tiny child, but when I look at all of those things as a parent I’m glad that my child was one that did not want to read it. I’m proud of him,” said Jolley. “Just because we hear the f-word in society does not make it right.”
Chris Warburn also addressed the language and sexual content, but further expanded that the number of parents and students who have publicly condemned the novel should denote its inappropriateness.
“If we take this piece of literature and I read it from front to back, word for word right here at this meeting, I’m very confident someone on the board would ask me to stop.”
Others publicly condemned what they saw as a hypocrisy in following district policy.
“Since Carol brought this up, if we know of coaches, you know we don’t tolerate the ‘f-word,’ right? Well, if we’re going to suspend a book because it has it in there, then those coaches need to be suspended immediately, and I expect them to be brought up at the next board meeting … Carol knows their names. If they’re swearing in front of the kids, you guys won’t tolerate it, you get rid of them,” said David Heinemann. “I don’t agree with that personally, but that’s what’s been said here.”
A student, Emma Hodgson, also addressed the board. She asserted that certain obscenities in this society could be representative of another culture. Hodgson agreed that no one should be forced to read the novel, but she questioned how someone else’s parents were justified to take away her right to read the novel.
The novel was reinstated, and Woolstenhulme was applauded by the school board for his humility.
“The decision that Monte just made was made at the correct level,” said Board Member Delwyn Jensen through the microphone. “That’s why I would like to focus on the policy here rather than the book. Monte can make the decision about the book, and I commend him for the decision he just made.”