RUMSON Two books that a group of parents say contain sexual passages and explicit language that are inappropriate for their Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School students will remain on the district’s reading lists.
Rumson-Fair Haven school board members, however, agreed at their meeting Tuesday night to formalize and better publicize the procedure for students to request alternative reading options.
The school board heard a report from an ad hoc committee of teachers, school board members and a parent, which determined the novel “Cal” and the play “Death and the Maiden” were age appropriate for the district’s juniors and seniors. The committee was formed after a group of more than 300 parents expressed concerns about the books last month.
That decision centered in part on a review of the school district’s health curriculum, which provides sexual education sections during freshman year, a more comprehensive sections in junior year and refresher discussions in senior year, said Sarah Maris, a member of both the school board and the ad hoc committee.
Maris said the passages were not designed to be gratuitous, but rather were used in either historical context or as tool to show a literary theme in the book.
“Death and the Maiden” is about Paulina, a former political prisoner who was raped by her captors, and years later believes she found her attacker and puts him on an informal trial. “Cal” is about a young Irish Catholic man involved in the Irish Republican Army who falls in love with the wife of a man murdered in an incident in which Cal was a getaway driver.
“When students read these very brief sex scenes, they should not be surprised, because this is material that they have read about and talk about a year ahead of time,” she said.
The ad hoc committee also recommended the “Death and the Maiden” be moved off the summer reading list and instead be taught during the school year so teachers can guide the students as they read the play, Maris said.
The committee also tried, but could not accommodate a request from parents to give all students options on books to read that meet certain literary topics, Maris said. Doing so would not work because part of the in-class work is analyzing the texts, she said. To accomplish that with students reading multiple books, teachers would have to prepare multiple lessons, which ultimately would cut down on discussion time for each lesson.
“We, as a committee, pushed really hard on this. The reality is it is really difficult to do that,” she said. “We cannot have classrooms where kids get half of the English instruction.”
The committee’s review did little to assuage parents who said they felt it was stacked with people who were already proponents of the books and didn’t take up their concerns fairly.
Parents said the procedure to request an alternative book is too restrictive and ultimately singles out students. Several parents also returned to the same question: Aren’t there better books for students to read?
At least one board member agreed that the district should consider more regularly changing required reading lists. “Cal” and “Death and the Maiden” have been on and off the district’s reading lists for about 15 years.
“Maybe we need a more frequent rotation,” said Teresa Liccardi, who also noted that she was comfortable with the committee’s recommendations about the two books and the thoroughness of their review.
Those books, school board members warned, would also likely cause concerns for some people.
“The nature of good literature is conflict. Conflict is quite often controversial to one side or another,” said Maris.
Several parents who attended Tuesday night’s board meeting said they supported the board’s efforts to review the books.
Parent Katy Badt-Frissora of Fair Haven said she was initially outraged when she learned of the sexual references in “Death and the Maiden” and marched up to her son’s room to talk about them.
Badt-Frissora said her perspective changed when her son, who normally does not talk about his school work, spent 10 minutes explaining to her how the references represented the experiences during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, how the book paralleled the ongoing conflict in Syria and it fit into a broader discussion about revenge.
“Literally, this kid educated me in such a profound way,” she said. “It’s risque, it was uncomfortable, but it worked.”
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