Jul 26, 2014

2012 in Review: Debate Over Challenged Book Divides Community

When parents challenged two books from AP English class, community members pushed back.

2012 in Review: Debate Over Challenged Book Divides Community

This is the fifth and final installment in a recap of the top five stories Plymouth-Canton Patch covered in 2012.

When Plymouth-Canton Community School's superintendent pulled the Graham Swift novel Waterland from AP English classrooms after parental complaints about a controversial passage, it set off a spirited pushback from the community with ripple effects that extended through the November 2012 election.

On Dec. 21, 2011, as Plymouth-Canton students were heading into winter break, Plymouth-Canton Superintendent Jeremy Hughes pulled Waterland after complaints of inappropriate sexual content. The parents also later challenged the use of Toni Morrison's Beloved. 

While the Plymouth-Canton school board largely declined to get involved with the debate, its meetings turned into a battleground for both proponents and opponents of the books. 

Hughes later agreed to put both books through a formal review process with separate, independent community panels and Waterland was reinstated and Beloved was never pulled.

Community gets involved in book debate

The debate quickly spread through Plymouth and Canton as parents, alumni and students organized community groups both for and against keeping the books, while local libraries held book discussions. Soon, the story also was making national headlines.

Former P-CEP students even went in front of the school board to speak in defense of the book.

Julie Rowe, a P-CEP alumnus, joined with a fellow former classmate, Lauren Crawford, to speak jointly in support of keeping the book in classrooms. 

"I love Waterland. It was the perfect novel for me as a high school student who was struggling with my own identity, where I fit into the grand scheme of things," Rowe recently said. 

Community members opposed to keeping the book in the district also spoke out on the issue.

Tony Lollio, a parent in the district, spoke against keeping the book at a school board meeting and later suggested in an op-ed to Plymouth-Canton Patch the district choose alternative literature that might not ruffle so many feathers.

"I wrote that piece after I attended the board meeting, and I still stand by every word of it," Lollio wrote recently in an email. "I think our kids are exposed to more than enough violence, rape, racism, and foul language in the world around them. We shouldn't need it as required reading for our teenagers."

Lollio insists the fears of banning books and censorship were overblown.

"Those who were talking about 'book burning' were fear-mongering and not helping the situation," Lollio said in an email. "Honest debate went out the window, and the whole thing devolved into a partisan political battle."

Lollio said he felt compelled to write about the issue to reflect on how community members treated one another.

"The issues were serious, but the debate itself was rather exciting," Lollio said in an email. "Beyond the book debate, I saw an underlying issue with how people treated one another. That was why I felt compelled to write about it."

Book debate prompts political involvement

Rowe and a handful of other community members organized Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton, a group that often was seen sporting black T-shirts with a quote from Waterland at public meetings and during reviews of the two books.

The group continues today as a watchdog for the district, primarily weighing in on local and state issues affecting public education.

"There's something to be said for the bonds that are built when you fight a battle together," Rowe said.

Several members of the group remained active through the November 2012 election, using their newfangled organizational skills to work on multiple local races. One group member, Tim Roraback, ran an unsuccessful campaign for State Representative in Michigan's 20th House District with an education-focused platform. 

"If we want to support academic integrity we have to take it beyond the local school board," Rowe said. "We have to take it to the state legislature."

Rowe worked on the successful reelection campaign for Rep. Dian Slavens (D-Canton) in November, and said the book debate has encouraged her to work in education policy.

Lollio, meanwhile, continues to write about politics on an ongoing blog on Plymouth-Canton Patch. 

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