By Terry Dean
In response to a small group of parents who objected to a novel being taught in their middle school children's classrooms that contained explicit language and mature themes, District 97 will offer those parents an alternative book for their students to read.
But the district will not remove the novel Monster from its reading curriculum, based on a decision made last week by school administration following a review of the book.
Seven D97 families filed a request with the district last month to have the book removed. A "request for reconsidering" can be made under board policy, which deals with educational materials deemed "offensive or controversial." The policy also calls for an internal committee to be convened to review such materials.
Written by Walter Dean Myers, Monster (1999) is a fictional, courtroom drama about an African American teen on trial for murder. Told from the point of view of the lead teen character, the book has won several literary awards since its release and has been used in D97 middle schools since 2008.
Still, some D97 parents object to the book's references to violence, drug use, sex among minors and "racially-offensive" language, among other mature themes. They also objected to their kids having to read from the novel out loud in class, which is not uncommon in some classrooms.
The parents filed their request on April 16, asking that the book be replaced with something "more appropriate" for young children. A committee that included teachers and administrators was then established to review Monster, a process that took about three weeks.
The committee ultimately concluded that the book is appropriate for D97 seventh graders. Until now, the district had not received any complaints from families about the novel, according to Chris Jasculca, D97's director of communications. He said the book was chosen by the district's literacy committee, which includes language arts teachers.
"The committee was in search of a drama to include on the novel grid for seventh grade and selected Monster based on a number of factors, including that it is age-appropriate, won a number of awards, is a high-engagement book for students, and provides an opportunity to discuss social and emotional issues in an appropriate setting," Jasculca said.
Wendy Daniels, a D97 parent, was among those wanting the book removed. Though her student wasn't exposed to the book — she has a fifth grader — Daniels said her friends' kids were. The parents, she added, were never told by the district that the book was being used or about its subject matter.
"We still have no idea why this book was chosen and why they thought this was the best book for seventh graders," Daniels said.
According to Jasculca, such reading materials are typically shared with families via the teacher's syllabus or during school events, such as curriculum night.
Daniels, meanwhile, said she's very unhappy with the district's decision. She adds that the book, according to many reviews she's read, is actually intended for children no younger than 13.
She said some of her friends have opted for the alternative book, but their kids still have to sit in class while the book is discussed. Daniels added that she'll opt for the alternative if Monster is still is use when her child enters the seventh grade.
"I've read other reviews online by teachers and at least 50 percent of those I read, those teachers said this book has mature content and this is what parents need to know, and that was not followed by District 97," Daniels said.
She and other parents took their concerns directly to the D97 school board after complaining to administration. The parents read excerpts from the novel during their public comments at the April 23, meeting.
Daniels, who is African American, also objected to what she says are negative stereotypes of black people depicted in the novel. She insists the book reinforces those stereotypes.
Tammy Schulz, parent of four D97 students, said she was embarrassed by the book's language. She was especially troubled by her child having to read about characters talking about a "prison gang rape."
"So this was a new topic for my 13 year old that I needed to address at home," Schulz said. Another excerpt she quoted involved a character threatening to shoot someone to death with a machine gun.
"And this struck me as odd as a quote from a book to read aloud in a culture that's rampant with school shootings. I was disappointed by that," Schulz said.
D97 administration alerted parents of its decision last Wednesday. Daniels, however, said the parents asked to be notified prior to last Tuesday's school board meeting. The administration's decision was also presented to the board at that meeting but as an FYI — the board does not vote on novels used in classrooms.
Lisa Schwartz, D97's director of instruction and assessment, said teachers are encouraged to read any pre-approved books themselves before using them in class.
"I'm sure teachers sometimes get caught in reading it along with their students but we want to make sure they're reading it in advance," Schwartz said.
Parents who opt for the alternative book can make that request directly with the teacher, Schwartz said.