Three years ago our 12th grader’s required English book contained sexual activity between a man and an older teenage girl, father stomped to death, mother burned, revenge, obsession, and fantasy killing (Jazz by Toni Morrison). The other required book contained alcoholism, homosexuality, sodomy, frustrated sexuality, infidelity, jealousy, seduction, lying, insulting remarks, and threats to kill (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams).
It was the fall of 2020, and the news was highlighting the drastic increase in suicide/mental health issues in teenagers due in part to the pandemic. Our 9th grader’s required English book celebrated two teens that had to learn the “art of killing” in a utopian world. One teen states, “It is the most difficult thing a person can be asked to do, And knowing that it is for the greater good doesn’t make it any easier. … The ending of life used to be in the hands of nature. … We are its sole distributor .. how necessary the work is.” (Scythe by Neal Shusterman).
In an email to GCM Principal Litz, and others, I responded, “I am well aware that in this area we have an abundance of students struggling with mental health and suicide. I am struggling with this arbitrary unjust taking of innocent lives without due process and without any legitimate authority. I know, I know, ‘it’s just dystopia.’ As adults when our mental health dictates that we not read certain materials, we can put it down. But how many vulnerable students in that class will be able to tell the teacher they can’t read the book for mental health reasons? How many students will take to heart that since the lives in this dystopia book don’t matter that their lives don’t matter?”
A few days later the high school community received an email from Principal Litz that a student had taken his life. I then emailed the principal, and others, an overwhelming amount of pre- and post-covid alarming statistics regarding the suicide/state of the mental health of our children and implored them to substitute the 9th grade English required reading books.
Nothing changed. How can GCM claim to care about their students with an apparent blatant disregard for the current climate and students’ mental health? It’s well-known that what we read affects our mental state.
Afterward I FOIA’d the GCM required English reading books for all grades. They have 56 books on their approved list. All, except two - one being an alternate book that my child could have read and the other being Hamlet - has the caution to consider language, violence, implied or explicit sexual situations, mental health, and drug/alcohol use. Every book that my daughters would have been required to read was permeated with this type of content, not just a chapter or a few pages. All 56 books had the stated objective for students to understand diverse perspectives and to reflect on the diversity of the school’s community. In essence, they justify these debauched books by utilizing worthy themes.
Last week FCPS (Fairfax) Superintendent Brabrand sent out an email stating there are monthly challenges being shared on TikTok that include vandalism, assaulting staff, invading someone’s personal space, and inappropriately assaulting or displaying private parts. He ends with threatening possible criminal charges and encouraging parents to talk with their children to make it a safe environment.
There should be synaptic connections going off in the brains of the FCPS administration, the school board, the principals, and those in the English departments that what students are reading in class is in part responsible for these activities. It’s the rhetorical questions of causation versus correlation and appropriateness.
Those responsible for the distribution of books of this genre in our schools are failing the students by not critically thinking about the state of the students’ mental health, the morality of such materials, and the appropriateness of such materials. The distribution of these low-denominator books is inconsistent with directives of law. The Supreme Court has stated there is a “duty to inculcate community values in school.” And “[t]he importance of public schools in the preparation of individuals for participation as citizens, and in the preservation of the values on which our society rests, long has been recognized by our decisions.” Virginia Codes emphasize moral and character education. In fact, the legislature does not need to show actual harm to ban materials in order to protect «the social interest in order and morality.” And the list goes on.
Parents allowing their children to read such books in one thing; schools requiring the reading of such materials is another thing. It is important for students to read critically and inculcate community values. They can get to their objective without dressing up garbage.
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