The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting . . . the right of people . . . to petition the government for redress of grievances.” Since public schools are part of the government, people have a right to petition schools when they have a grievance about curriculum. This right is exercised with consistency across the country.
Once a person petitions a school or district, there is an expectation that challenges will be resolved in a way that is “just.” Americans’ sense of fairness is founded on equality in the assignment of rights and duties. Thus, each person who challenges curriculum expects to be treated equally or fairly. The community, in turn, expects public school boards will provide equal treatment and consistency to protect citizens from unfair treatment. Social norms of fairness also prescribe just treatment. Communities look with disfavor on those in power, such as principals, if they deal unfairly with challengers.
The legal requirement for fair treatment by government agencies, including school districts, is expressed in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states: “. . . nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Legal scholars point out that due process requires that citizens have a right to air their views on matters that affect them. It also requires school districts to respond to challenges by following established procedures, applying the procedures in an even-handed way, and outlining the process by which challengers can appeal decisions.
Defining Curriculum Challenges
The American Library Association defines a challenge as an attempt to remove or restrict access to materials, based upon objections of a person or group. Thus, a challenge is not just an expression of opinion, but goes further. A successful challenge would restrict or remove material from access by others not participating in the challenge.
Some complaints about school programs may be related to the performance of a particular teacher who uses unapproved materials or covers material beyond the approved scope of a class or grade. These are not curriculum challenges and are usually addressed as personnel issues following procedures outlined in employee contracts and personnel laws.
Usually curriculum challenges relate to some form of printed material, curriculum guidelines or handbooks, media, or pedagogical practice which is part of the approved curriculum of the school or district. The complaint is usually lodged by a parent of a student, but some have been made by other members of the public and even district employees.
The range of items challenged is quite varied, from James and the Giant Peach to The Catcher in the Rye. Even J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have been on the list of challenged materials.
Research About Challenges
There was a series of studies conducted that focused on gathering data about types of challenges. Between 1956 and 1958, Marjorie Fiske did an interview study that included school libraries in twenty-six California communities. A major finding was that libraries react in a precautionary way in book selection when highly charged and widely reported community conflicts are caused by challenges to books. A more recent study by Dianne McAfee-Hopkins surveyed school library/ media specialists in secondary public schools between 1987 and 1990. The primary reasons for the complaints reported in this study were: lack of family values, sexuality of the material, and morality concerns.
A 1977 study conducted by Lee Burress for the National Council of Teachers of English surveyed secondary school teachers on censorship and found that almost half reported some kind of attempted or successful censorship based on the language use such as profanity or erotic qualities in books. In 1980 the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conducted a survey of librarians, principals, and superintendents and reported that challenges happened in all regions and types of communities. In this study only 10.5 percent of the challenged materials related to religious issues such as “moral relativism” and evolution.
In 1992, Martha McCarthy and Carol Langdon conducted a survey of superintendents to study the nature and scope of challenges for the Indiana Education Policy Center. They noted that challenges increased beginning in 1989, at the same time that the state required inclusion of AIDS instruction and drug education in the curriculum. Louise Adler conducted similar surveys in California in 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1995, which showed that the number of districts reporting challenges increased by 5 percentage points between 1990 and 1995. Forty-one percent of the responding districts reported challenges from 1993 to 1995. Concerns about religious conflicts or satanic/witchcraft issues accounted for 32 percent of challenges, and parents were the most frequently identified challengers (54 percent). A significant percentage (76 percent) of districts reported that they were experiencing the same number or more challenges.
Several organizations also collect data on reports of challenges. The People for the American Way published a list of incidents that were either reported in the media or reported directly to their organization between 1986 and 1996. The reports received wide media attention, and conservative groups challenged their accuracy. Similarly, the American Library Association (ALA) publishes the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, which also lists incidents of challenges in schools, as well as libraries and universities. The ALA reports that between 1990 and 1998, over 5,000 challenges were reported to their Office for Intellectual Freedom. Most of the challenges were to material in classrooms or school libraries. In 2002, ALA reported that they received about 900 reports of challenges per year, an increase from about 300 each year in 1978.
Herbert Foerstel is the author of Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (2002), which lists the most frequently challenged books giving synopsis and background about selected challenges.
Recent Media Reports
A review of recent education media suggests some of the interests challengers seem to have. The arguments for inclusion of alternative theories to evolution were labeled “creationism” during the 1980s and 1990s. Now the theory being supported by challengers of evolution is “intelligent design.” These challenges are taking place at schools, at the district level—even by some school board members—and at the state level.
Another type of religiously based challenge reported in the media results from attempts by districts to include the study of various religions. Attempts to find “balanced” curriculum materials can result in challenges for a variety of reasons. This happened recently in Anchorage, Alaska, when the district removed a teaching guide called the Arab World Studies Notebook. In 1994, the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University developed a resource guide to help schools find a proper constitutional and educational role for religion. It offers legal and practical advice for dealing with religiously based curriculum challenges.
Due Process Procedures
Many district policies and most model policies contain the following key provisions:
- Challenges must be made in writing using a specified form.
- Challengers must begin the process by discussing their concern with the principal of the school where the challenged material is used.
- A review committee (which can be constituted either at the school or district level) conducts a study of the challenged material.
- Challenged materials remain in use during the review period.
- The child of a challenger may be given an alternative assignment during the process.
- The steps of the review process are outlined in the policy and provide for an appeal process.
- Standards used by the committee to review the challenged material must be specified in the policy.
- A standard should be established that states how often a challenged item or service will be reviewed within a specific period.
- Guidelines must be established for selection of review committee members.
Professional organizations such as The American Library Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and Phi Delta Kappa have developed guidelines for responding to challenges. Jonathan Weil reported on a district policy from Evanston, Illinois, which contains the provision that “no parent has the right to limit reading, viewing, or listening materials for students other than his or her own children.” Once the board makes a decision on a challenge, the Evanston policy states that there will be no further review (no new challenge to that material) for three years. Challengers must answer the following questions:
- Do you represent an organization or other group?
- To what in the material do you object?
- What do you feel might be the result of students becoming involved with this material?
- Is there anything good about this material?
- What do you believe is the theme of this material?
- In its place, what other print or nonprint material would you recommend?
Commentators on model policies unanimously support the key provision requiring that challenged materials remain in use during the review process. While challengers must be afforded due process, the burden of proving that material should be removed rests on the challenger. This provision is designed to prevent a demand by the challenger that the district rush to judgment in order to protect their child from the “damaging” material. On a practical level, it is easiest to implement when the challenge concerns one story out of a textbook or one library book for a single child. When an entire textbook series and more than one family is involved, however, implementation of this provision can be problematic.
While the policies enunciate due process procedures, they also serve as mechanisms controlling the level of controversy typically surrounding challenges. Organizational theorists call this “buffering the technical core of an organization.” Requiring that the challenge be put in writing assures that the challenger’s concerns are clearly expressed. At the same time, it serves as a buffer, since some parents will not want to invest the time necessary to fill out the required form or make their concerns part of the public record. The provision for establishing review committees assures that the challenger will get a hearing—a key ingredient in due process. But the district can control the level of controversy by the way it appoints the members of the review committee.
Louise Adler reported that in 1995, 62 percent of the challenges resulted in continuing to use the challenged material or using the material but excusing the challenger’s child from using it. Nineteen percent of these challenges successfully restricted use of material, while only 14 percent resulted in completely removing material.
Existence of challenge policies, while assuring due process, also constrains the controversies that typically surround challenges by defining the channel through which these must flow. Districts can develop and adopt policies during times of political quiescence so they will be in place when political storms erupt over challenges.
- Adler, L. (1993). Curriculum challenges in California. Record in Educational Administration and Supervision, 13(2), 10–20.
- Adler, L. (1995). Are the public schools a meeting ground or a battleground? Religion & Education, 22(1), 17–26.
- Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, & Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (1981). Limiting what students shall read. Washington, DC: Authors.
- Burress, L. (1979). A brief report of the 1977 NCTE censorship survey. In J. E. Davis (Ed.), Dealing with censorship (pp. 14–47). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
- Doyle, R. (2004). Banned books: 2004 resource book. Chicago: American Library Association.
- Fiske, M. (1959). Book selection and censorship. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Foerstel, H. (2002). Banned in the U.S.A.: A reference guide to book censorship in schools and public libraries. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- McCarthy, M., & Langdon, C. (1993, June). Challenges to the curriculum in Indiana’s public schools. Policy Bulletin No. PB-B20, pp. 2–9.
- Weil, J. (1987). Policy and procedures: Dealing with censorship. Social Education, 51(6), 448–449.
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