Parents debate use of Angelou book

Published 11:02 am Tuesday, April 13, 2004

By By JAMES COLLINS / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- A Niles Community Schools Board of Education committee held a meeting to review the inclusion of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in the Niles High School curriculum on Monday night.
The two-hour meeting at the Westside Administration building was attended by about 20 members of the Niles community.
The three-member board committee reviewing the book included board president Mary Crayton, secretary Elaine Miller and trustee Dana Daniels, who is recovering from surgery and could not be at the meeting.
The board members heard arguments from a panel of five concerned parents who would like to see the book removed from school curriculum and school officials who think the novel is a good educational tool.
The challenged material was recently reviewed by a reconsideration committee made up of two students, a parent, the principal, a high school librarian and a member of the English department. The committee concluded the book should remain in the curriculum and parents should continue to have the option of having their children read an alternate book.
The concerned parents were not satisfied with the reconsideration committee's findings and opted to take their concerns a step further and have a school board committee review the book for removal from the high school curriculum.
The parents in opposition to the book, who have sons in a 10th grade English class that read the book earlier this year, were first to give their arguments to the committee.
Kathy Zeider began by reading some passages from Angelou's novel that she felt were inappropriate for high school students, including a graphic account of molestation.
She said the book was giving wrong and mixed messages to students and felt there were other novels of a less graphic nature that could teach students the same basic message.
Zeider said having students read this material was almost like "putting a loaded gun in their hands."
Connie Maglish, who was also opposed to the book being taught in schools, stressed the need for schools to inform parents of what their students are reading.
Dan Maglish also spoke on behalf of the book's removal from schools and said the vivid imagery of the scenes in question were not appropriate for the classroom.
After the parents' presentation to the committee, Miller asked the group to raise their hands if they had read the entire book. Zeider was the only one in the group to raise her hand.
Miller said she was disappointed that the entire panel of parents did not read the book as a whole.
Connie Maglish replied by saying she determined it was inappropriate by reading the excerpts and did not want to waste her time by reading the entire book.
Director of curriculum Jim Craig and Niles High School principal Betty Perkins provided backing to why the novel should continue to be used as part of the curriculum.
Craig began by saying the parents were on very solid ground to be concerned, but said "the literary merit far outweighs the objectionable scenes."
Perkins explained the reconsideration committee's process and their final analysis to retain the book in the curriculum with parental choice.
She pointed out one of the students on the committee viewed the passage about molestation as a crime scene and not as a sexual scene.
After presentations from both panels, the meeting was opened up for public comment. Each of the nine people who chose to speak were given two minutes to voice their opinions.
Dawn Gillespie said her son's class read the book and that he was upset about the rape scene. She told the board she would like to be made more aware of what students are reading in school.
Sheri Weber, who has read the book three times, said there is much to be learned from Angelou's writing.
She pointed out the book demonstrates that life can deliver negative blows, but those blows can be overcome.
Weber also stated that she thinks morality is learned at home, not at school.
Alison Boelcke, a Niles High School senior who read the book in class, supported the book and said her teacher made sure that students were getting the right message.
She thought the book was getting picked on unfairly and that some of the elements of the novel were getting twisted to make it seem worse than it really is.
Brian Carpenter, who has three daughters in the Niles school district, said he would have no problem with letting his children read the book.
After hearing the public's comments, the meeting was adjourned. The board committee's final decision will come in the form of a written recommendation within the next week or so.