Parents group seek to ban novel from MHS

Parents opposed to the use of a book about a young boy’s struggles with the sins of his family against Native Americans in 1948 Montana in Merrill High School English classes were told the book would not be immediately pulled from use after a 7-2 vote of the MAPS Board of Education Monday.

The strong graphic descriptions of rape, sexual abuse and other adult themes in the novel “Montana 1948” by Larry Watkins were what first brought a group of parents to the School Board meeting last Wednesday. They presented their concerns about the themes and language in the book during the public comment portion of that meeting, and asked the board to immediately remove the book from both classrooms and the school library.

The board couldn’t legally take any action at Wednesday’s meeting because the matter wasn’t on the posted agenda. The members of the board were given a copy of the novel to read themselves and a special meeting was called for Monday to discuss the book and any possible action to remove it.

MHS Principal Shannon Murray addressed the board during Monday’s meeting saying that opponents of the book had come to him to see if he could remove the book himself. They also sent an email to the School Resource Officer last Thursday complaining about the “pornographic” nature of the book and misrepresenting what Murray had told them. He said he was not defending the book, but the policy and procedure the district has in place to remove a book.

He said he offered Karen Cournaya, who came to his office last week, the form that would start the process of review and possible removal by the board, but she refused it, seeking to have the book immediately removed, instead. During the district review policy, the book would still be used in classrooms until the board would vote to keep or remove it. He said in the 12 years the novel has been on the approved reading list at MHS, three complaints have been made against it, but none formally under the district policy. Murray said one complaint came before he was principal, one five years ago and last week’s request.

“This book is in many high school libraries around this country and this book is in many high school classrooms,” Murray said.

He then went down a list of the books on the board approved reading list, citing objections that could be raised about many of them, some classic works of literature.

He said he has been told by the MHS English teachers that the language and actions of the characters in the novel is what makes it such a powerful way to teach young adults how bad racism, rape and other subjects really are. He also said that with so little time left in the school year, it would be hard for teachers to find a replacement in time, denying the students valuable literary instruction.

“My concern is what would happen if we go ahead and ban this book without following proper board policy,” Murray said. “If this is the new standard, there is very little we can teach at Merrill High. In fact, possibly even at the middle school.”

Murray also repeatedly stressed that several statements by opponents in local media accounts of the dispute have misrepresented what he had actually told them, along with other inaccuracies.

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

The opponents to the book read several lines from the book at Wednesday’s meeting, and passed them on to Judy Woller, Director of HAVEN, who called the work “pornographic,” a charge they have also repeatedly cited in local media accounts.

Board President Keith Schmelling said Monday that he had contacted Woller once she had actually read the book and could place the lines she was given into context with the rest of the book, her opinion changed.

“She said she used a poorly chosen word to describe the passages out of context,” Schmelling said.

Superintendent Dr. Lisa Snyder also recommended that the board stick to its policy for challenged books. If parents object to the book, they can request their children be given an alternative work to read, which would be honored.

“To prevent your own child from reading a book is good parenting,” Snyder said. “To prevent someone else’s child from reading it is censorship.”

Each Board member then stated their opinion on the book and the charges against it. Loretta Baughan and newly elected member Brad Geiss urged the book be removed immediately while the other seven disagreed. After the two made a formal motion to remove the book, the board voted down the measure 2-7, with Baughan and Geiss voting in favor.

After Monday’s meeting, Schmelling said unless a parent files a formal complaint under the policy, sparking a review of the book, the board won’t take up the matter again.

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