Board has varying opinions on book


SUNBURY — Most of the Big Walnut Board of Education’s first meeting of the year, clocking in at five hours-plus, was devoted to a controversial novel for youth called “Looking for Alaska.”

On Jan. 12, the board voted 4-2 to follow the recommendation that the book remain in the 10th grade honors English classroom and in the high school library. The board later voted 3-2-1 to suspend the current process for reviewing educational materials, apparently disbanding the book review committee tasked to evaluating their suitability and taking on the review process themselves of the 21 other books that have been challenged in the district.

Since so much was said about the book and the review process, The Gazette wanted to share some of what school board members and the superintendent had to say. Keep in mind these are summaries.

School board President Doug Crowl

“What is lacking today is respect,” Crowl said. “The statements that I see on social media, the stories that I hear, and the attitude of some in the community is sickening, quite frankly. And I’m sure that the people that oppose me think my opinion is sickening, and therein lies the problem. There was a walkout today (Jan. 12) of students. This board has a policy that you will not walk out.”

Crowl said of “Looking for Alaska,” “I didn’t find any respect for any teachers, organizations, whatever in the storyline of the book. So, what do you teach them? … I don’t ban books. I don’t believe in banning books. … But is this age appropriate? My answer is no it’s not, and the reason I say that is because it’s defined by the statutes of the State of Ohio to be obscene. … I do see a value in the educational use of this book, but not with the profanity. … I’ve got great faith in all the teachers. … It’s an insult to think or to say that members of this board do not support the teachers of this district, and I hear it all the time. … I would be open, with conditions for the use, redaction of the objectionable part. And I see a head shaking. Other than that, then, let’s vote to get rid of the book. I wanted to make a compromise …”

Crowl was told redaction is a form of censorship. “It’s not censorship!” he said. “Censor means you take that book out and you burn it in the street. … I pose the question, if the obscene language was removed from the book, does it still have the same lesson plan to the youth? Could it be modified?”

Later, Crowl said, “I’ll give you a true compromise. Make it an opt-in versus an opt-out. Put a different book as the leading book, and if you want to teach that, then the student can opt-in to this lesson plan. … I absolutely don’t understand how somebody can read this book and the phrases and not understand that there is obscenity, by the Ohio Revised Code’s own definition, not mine. And if you won’t acknowledge that, that might be where the problem is.”

With regards to book review process, Crowl said he had “zero faith” in the “rubric” used, which lent itself to the committee favoring keeping the challenged books in place.

“It is recommended the board suspend policy 9130 while the policy is reviewed,” Crowl said. “We’re not suspending the whole thing. … In order to handle the 23 books efficiently, the board needs to take them over. … The superintendent is tied up for a year-and-a-half at the pace we’re going. I’m trying to relieve him, that’s what efficiency means. Instead of making everybody jump through the hoops, bring those books and let the board handle it.”

Board member Sherri Dorsch

During the board comment portion of the meeting, Dorsch said people have stayed or moved back to the Big Walnut district because while it has a small-town feel, it also gives students a well-rounded education.

“I don’t think that the majority of this community wants this board to take this district backward by limiting the view that our students have of the world around them,” Dorsch said. “I think the majority want the students of Big Walnut to have all of the tools that they need to navigate the world with all of the people in it, while holding those same small-town values as stepping up when someone needs a hand. That doesn’t happen by keeping information from our students. … I would love for this board to shift its focus away from culture wars that have been driven by national politics, it seems, and to refocus on the important matters that we’ve heard Superintendent Ryan McLane and Treasurer Darren Jenkins talk about, such as existing enrollment growth and its impact on our facilities, aging facilities, the projected growth that can be expected by other growth in Columbus and the central Ohio area, pandemic learning losses in reading and math, staffing shortages,” Dorsch said. “I certainly don’t want to say that the books that our students read is not important, it is … but I think this board needs to refocus on the critical matters in front of this district in 2023.”

Of “Looking for Alaska,” Dorsch said, “I read the book back in September when people first started talking about it. … that had a lot of really great things to say that I think kids these days could connect with.” Dorsch said that author John Green, a minister, said in the Afterword of the book, “It seemed pretty obvious to me that I was arguing against vapid sexual encounters in which no one has any fun. … Some censors clearly felt otherwise …”

Dorsch continued, “I have read a lot of really great books that I hated, but I have learned something from every book that I have read. … I think these books give our students the opportunity to think about things that are happening in their lives, or their friends’ lives. It helps them build empathy. It helps them understand the greater world, and I trust the educators that we have in this district to make sure that the focus is on the educational value.”

Dorsch said of suspending the review process, “I have some concerns about changing policies midstream because you do that to one policy and what prevents that from happening to every policy? That’s a road that we wouldn’t necessarily want to go down ….”

Board member Steve Fujii

Fujii said he approached this decision like all others — as an educator, a parent and a board member. When he was an educator, Fujii said people had wanted to ban Harry Potter from classrooms, and in an earlier era, it was ban comic books.

“I have read every single book that my kids have read in this district along with them,” Fujii said. “My kid read ‘Looking for Alaska,’ which he did his sophomore year. I read it as well. You know what, it led to great conversation around our dinner table. So as a parent when I can talk to somebody about respect and I can talk to somebody about misogyny and what that means and I can talk to somebody about our family values, it was a tool for me as a parent. Not all parents see it that way. I respect that.”

As a board member, Fujii said he trusts those teaching the book, the committee, and the superintendent. He was concerned about overturning decisions by experts they trust.

“I’ll be really concerned if we choose to do that because from that point forward, anything that we do, the impetus is on us because clearly, we know better,” Fujii said. “At the end of the day, we have a policy in place. There are evidently 50 more books we have to consider. We have the choice to support our staff and the community members who helped make that recommendation, or say we know better. It is also about our role as a board member is to provide oversight and governance. To say we know better means we are micromanaging and overreaching.”

With regards to the review process, Fujii said, “Certainly, we have past precedent of suspending policies while they are reviewed. … Our role as a board is … not in book challenges.”

School board Vice President Angela Graziosi

“I read the book,” Graziosi said, as well as lessons plans for “Looking for Alaska.” “I was shocked. I’m a 53-year-old woman who’s traveled around the world. I see no use for this book. … I don’t need to read it again. … If I brought this book and laid it in my office, I’d be fired. If I read these words to my clients, they’d fire me. Laugh all you want … a public school does not need to be teaching this.”

Board member Alice Nicks

During the board comment portion of the meeting, Nicks spoke about pedophilia, saying “diversity, equity and inclusion” were part of a diabolical trend. “It’s coming unless a massive parent brigade shows up in both schools and in other venues that must be deployed to overcome this depravity,” Nicks said. Nicks said we should “eliminate all X-rated media.” She said parents were outraged about content taught during the COVID-19 shutdown virtually. “It’s not just abortion killing our children, it’s the agenda of the sexual movement. Only you and I can stop it.”

Before the vote, Nicks said, “We are just asking for this to be re-homed to the (Community) Library. So, I don’t understand why we’re dancing around this. … This book does not allow for a bridge.”

Superintendent Ryan McLane

“When I even interviewed for this job in May, there was no secret that this community was divided, and I said in order to start bridging that gap you’ve got to listen to both sides and then find a compromise,” McLane said. “I was not OK with any of these books being required of all students. If this was a first-year teacher that was telling me I want to read ‘Looking for Alaska,’ I probably would have been hesitant. … I trust when a veteran educator tells me that this is going to meet the learning objectives. … I’ve got to trust that they know what they’re doing, because they are qualified to do that. When it’s a unanimous decision from the committee, I feel like I’m obligated to then give that to you as my recommendation to the board. … This wasn’t about everybody needs to read this book. We are giving families the choice. … I was not OK with this book is going to be read by everyone, and I was also not OK with this idea of the opting out, and one kid is out in the hallway reading another book for four to five weeks. I don’t think that’s what has taken place, and if it has, we’ve got to do better.”

McLane continued, “I felt like the compromise to try to bridge that gap between both sides was to make this a choice of multiple books, and I truly believe the majority of this community is supportive of that. We will never get consensus. … My recommendation this evening is still to leave ‘Looking for Alask’a in the curriculum.”

McLane said of the book review process, “I was OK with the plan that was laid out in October, and I feel we have some pretty meaty issues ahead of us: financials, facilities, and on top of that the board take on 21 books?”

The next school board meeting is Feb. 16.

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