After months of debate and parent feedback, a controversial book will remain in classrooms.
The Sauk Prairie School Board announced in a July 14 press release “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie will stay part of the ninth-grade English curriculum. The decision was made unanimously during a closed session meeting of the school board July 10.
After parents initially complained about the book for bad language, sexual subjects and racism, Sauk Prairie School District Superintendent Cliff Thompson ruled the book should remain part of the curriculum.
His decision was appealed by student parents Scott and Lisa Enerson. The July 10 meeting ended the appeal, though the decision was not announced until July 14.
On July 11, the Eagle disputed the school board’s use of a closed session to discuss and vote on the curriculum issue. The school board cited its reason for the July 10 closed session was to “conduct quasi-judicial deliberations on the appeal from the book complaint decision made by the Superintendent and the District’s Book Review Committee.”
Capital Newspapers Regional Editor Todd Krysiak filed an open records request July 12 to obtain the vote tally, related documents and decision from the closed session. The district released the vote tally July 14 and shortly after responded to the open records request.
“We do not agree with the open meetings exemption used for the closed meeting, but we are glad the Sauk Prarie School District has agreed to release this important information to the community,” Krysiak said.
School Board President Ryan Jesberger said the school board felt comfortable with the decision to hold the discussion and vote during closed session.
“It was a controversy between parents, the district review committee and superintendent, and speaking with school district attorney, it was quasi-judicial and not a hearing or anything like that which fit in exemption of state statutes,” Jesberger said.
He said the board did not collect any new information during the meeting. Members studied the documents and comments already presented to the board in public.
Jesberger said each member of the board read the book.
“I reviewed all the material, and decisions and at that point, having read the book and the empathy and compassion and the story and background of the character, I felt the book – while there is some challenging content in it – is ultimately a good educational resource and a book that teaches some great lessons,” Jesberger said. “With the challenging content, there were some questions. After reviewing the content I feel it’s a valuable piece of our curriculum ... For me personally, it was a pretty clear cut decision to uphold Dr. Thompson’s decision.”
Parental issues with the book initially were brought to public light during the open comment section of the school board’s April 24 meeting. Thompson said he received a complaint about the book, and as per district policy, a committee was formed to review the book and the complaint. The committee included a board member, faculty and several lay people.
The committee voted 8-5 in favor of keeping the book in the district’s curriculum — which some parents felt was an unfair process because there were more faculty present than parents.
At the May 9 school board meeting, the issue became such a hot topic extra seating was required to hold everyone who sought to speak. Thompson then said he would make a decision on the book.
Thompson announced at the school board meeting May 22 that he had decided to keep the book in the curriculum. This led to the appeal by the Enersons. At the time, Thompson said he was directing the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction to work with the school principals and teachers on two areas: including information about text and media resources in course syllabi to provide ample time for parent and student review and developing a consistent practice where students choosing an alternative text can remain in the classroom with their peers.
“The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was listed as one of the most banned or challenged books of 2014 as cited by the L.A. Times. It chronicles the life of Junior, a 14-year old budding cartoonist who lives on a Spokane, Washington Indian reservation. It won multiple awards, including the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Sauk Prairie Eagle Reporter Autumn Luedke contributed to this article.