Commentary
11:08 am
Mon February 20, 2012

Parents Making a Difference

Just over a month ago, I talked about an interesting controversy in the Plymouth-Canton Community School district, a middle-to-upper-middle area of western Wayne County.

The superintendent suddenly banned a popular novel, Graham Swift’s "Waterland", from the Advanced Placement, or AP English curriculum. "Waterland", first published almost 30 years ago, is a highly acclaimed book which has to do with storytelling and history, and which shows how everything is influenced by what came before.

They’ve been using it in Plymouth-Canton for years. But suddenly the book was pulled, and there were hints that the district was also going to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "Beloved."  Why? Well, it seemed one couple complained.

Matt and Barbara Dame are self-identified Tea Party supporters; he ran for the school board last year, and lost. He claimed that the works were unsuitable because they contained references to sex and ghosts and infanticide, and use profanity.

His complaint apparently frightened the superintendent, who is serving on an interim basis, and he unilaterally changed the curriculum. What is most remarkable, however, is what happened after the books were banned. A large number of Plymouth-Canton parents, whatever they may have thought of the books, seemed to be outraged at the superintendent’s undemocratic decision.

And, they did something about it.  They formed a group, “Supporters of Academic Integrity in Plymouth-Canton,” and started first a Facebook page, and then a website.

They went to school board meetings. They were angry, but they were smart and organized, and stayed reasonable and civil. They said this was about academic freedom. They pointed out that parents were told last spring what reading material would be used in this class, and that they did not have to allow their children to enroll in this course -- they could take another.

One parent, Tim Roraback, became sort of an unofficial spokesman for the group, and reached out to the media.  The couple in favor of banning the book mostly avoided the press.

School officials avoided the media too, but clearly figured out pretty early on that they had made a massive blunder. The turning point may have come when one of the school board members, Barry Simescu, spoke up at a public meeting and said he was disappointed that the interim superintendent had banned "Waterland." He got a standing ovation when he did that.

Soon a review committee recommended that "Beloved" remain in the curriculum. Last week, a separate committee made up of teachers, parents, a librarian, a professor and other school officials decided to restore "Waterland" as well.

Erin MacGregor, the district’s director of secondary education, said the committee was “truly impressed with the instructional program the teachers deliver,” and said the teachers who use this book explained very well how and why they were used.

Jeremy Hughes, the interim superintendent, then sent word through a spokesman that he would abide by the decision of the committee. There’s a very encouraging moral in this story.

A group of people came together to oppose a decision they thought was clearly wrong. They made their case intelligently and fairly and without personal attacks. They appealed to reason, and in the end, they won.

Wouldn’t we all be better off if we saw a lot more of that in the coming election campaign?