April 8, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
The removal of a sexually explicit novel from a Hartford classroom has touched off a debate about the line between educational value and community values.
"The Window Pain," written by Steve Perry - the principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School - was abruptly removed from a 10th-grade English class at the school after a teacher complained to district officials that the novel was inappropriate.
"It had language and depictions that warranted a second look," said school Superintendent Robert Henry.
Henry directed Perry to collect the books from students and asked the human resources office to investigate the controversy, which was touched off by a teacher who was being transferred from the school. Perry also sent a letter to parents and invited them to call him with questions; he said no parents complained.
The coming-of-age novel, self-published by Perry, tells the tale of two boys growing up in the projects of Philadelphia. Some passages explicitly portray the boys' sexual experiences.
"The book was selected because we are a social justice school," Perry said, referring to the magnet school's theme, "and this book deals with poverty, race and violence toward women."
Richard L. Schwab, dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, said that teachers do sometimes use books that have explicit language and themes. But in those cases, he said, a team of educators should read the book and ask: "What are the goals? What are you trying to accomplish?"
In high school sex education classes, Schwab said, discussions are often very explicit and focus on sexually transmitted diseases and using birth control.
"Does that work as effectively as a book like this? I don't know. But in public K-12 curriculum there needs to be dialogue about the goals and objectives of the curriculum and how to achieve those goals."
Chris Fulton, the teacher who assigned the book to his class, said that he selected it because he had a number of students who weren't doing their assigned reading and he was looking for something that would resonate with them. He said Perry's book, set in a poor, urban neighborhood, got the kids reading.
He said that he only had time to get through the first chapter with them before he was directed to collect the books, and that students objected to having to give the books back.
"They picked the book up and they jumped all in it," Fulton said.
But Delores Bolton, the assistant superintendent for magnet schools, said that while she did not read the book, excerpts she read gave her the impression that some of the language "is a little inappropriate for what we would expect students to have in school."
According to Schwab, standard educational practice calls for notifying parents first and vetting questionable books through district curriculum specialists. In this case, neither the teacher, Fulton, nor Perry, notified parents of the plan to use Perry's book.
There is no district directive that parents be notified, but the district does have a protocol for vetting books, Henry said. Officials said it was unclear whether Perry followed those steps, and they hope their investigation will answer that question.
As a rule, Henry said, district officials read the proposed books and look for references in professional journals endorsing their educational value. Bolton said Perry's book was not reviewed by district officials for assignment to students.
But Perry said he did follow protocol. In May 2005, he said, he included "The Window Pain" on a list of books that his school intended to purchase or use, and he gave that list to Roberta Skripol, the district's senior coordinator of English.
Skripol could not be reached for comment, but Perry said his list, including "The Window Pain," was approved. District spokesman Terry D'Italia said that the book appeared on a requisition order, but that the district did not purchase the books. Perry donated them for use in his school.
Cathy Carpino, president of the teachers union, said parents should have been notified before the book was distributed. "I certainly don't advocate censorship, but I do support letting parents know when something might be controversial," she said.
But a dozen teachers who work at the school have signed a letter supporting the book and its use as a teaching tool in class.
"We believe the book in its entirety was appropriately assigned to a group of mature tenth-grade students with the best intentions in mind," the letter states.
Before Fulton removed the book, he said, it had sparked conversations in class about domestic violence "and what we can do to be change agents."
That was exactly what Perry, a social worker, said he hoped the book would do.
At the end of the book, one of the two major characters dies, and the other ends up reflecting on his life in prison.
By writing the book, he said, he hoped to "show the world that children are living in deplorable conditions."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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