By Taylor Chen
Conejo Valley School Board Policy 6161.1 ensures that students are notified on the syllabus that they have a right to read a different book in English class when it “conflicts with personal sensibilities and/or values.” Students have always had this right but many students may not have known that they could ask until the information was provided on the syllabi.
The amended policy which caused controversy in the community was passed with a 3-2 vote in the winter of 2017. At the beginning of the 2018 school year, a current school board candidate and attorney, who fought against the policy threatened to sue the school district if the board did not re-vote on the policy, therefore the policy was once again brought for a vote. The policy was again passed with a 3-2 vote; but, it was not without great debate between community members.
Policy 6161.1 requires teachers to put an asterisk regarding books which are flagged by the CDE as containing mature content.
However, the CDE removed the warnings that they had on certain books shortly after 6161.1 was passed. They have not released an official statement or reason for the removal of the warnings.
Because of this, the newest amended policy will use the warnings associated with the “October 2017 CDE Recommended Literature List,” which contains the annotation, “this book was published for an adult readership and thus contains mature content. Before handing the text to a child, educators and parents should read the book and know the child.”
The policy also creates a parent committee whose job is to read school materials and make recommendations. However, like before, the board has the final say.
This policy makes it so that all parents are informed of the books we will be reading and students are made aware of their rights as is described as CDE best practices.
Students and community members have been vocal about this policy. They have spoken at board meetings saying that the policy bans books, however, the policy text never mentions banning books or removing books from the approved core literature list.
This policy provides parents with information about the books their children will read in class. This allows parents to help underage students make decisions about whether certain novels are appropriate.
Sandee Everett, a licensed school counselor and school board member, explained that one thing she and other board members insisted on, and the teacher’s union disagreed with, was to inform students and parents on the syllabus that they have a right to ask for an alternative assignment as well as to place an asterisk next to books identified by the California Department of Education as containing “mature content.” Everett said that if parents and students do not know that they can ask for a different book, “how can they ask?”
With child rape depicted in several of the required books, some believed that it would be irresponsible not to inform students and parents on the syllabus which books had mature content.
Everett’s training as a counselor helps her understand that it is healthy for abuse victims to be given “trauma informed choices.” Providing abuse victims and survivors transparency and choice is proven to empower them to feel understood and supported.
In November 2017, the Acorn reported that English teacher Joe Nigro said, “The teachers committee did not support giving parents prior warning about books with mature themes.” Mr. Nigro then went on to state, “We all know that once these labels are placed on any book, that text is dead in the water, and many parents will opt out without even investigating further.”
Like Mr. Nigro, many community members assert that students will abuse the opt out policy if it is made readily accessible. Supporters of the policy cite the fact that only five students of the 7,000 high school students in the district have opted out.
The process under the policy is confidential, so other students do not know who asked to read a different novel. It also does not require students and parents to give anyone a reason, including to their teacher, as to why they want to read an alternative book. Therefore, for students who may have past abusive experiences that may be triggered by novels that contain child rape, violence, abuse, suicidal ideation or other potentially disturbing materials, they do not have to read that book. This effectively supports students who have had sensitive experiences.
Many community members who support the policy have likened it to the policy with PG-13 and R-rated movies. Because students are minors, they need to obtain a parent’s signature to view the content. In the same way, many argue that R-rated or even X-rated novels should receive the same .
The National Institute of mental health found that “3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. This number represents 12.8 percent of the US population in that age group.” There are a lot of students in this school that have been depressed or have experienced abuse. 6161.1 gives these students the option to make a decision that will best benefit their own needs.
Taylor Chen is a senior at Westlake High School.
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