Thursday, October 23rd, 2014
Special Parkway committee to review controversial book
By Kathy Thompson
ROCKFORD - A special committee will be tapped to decide if a controversial book is appropriate for the Parkway High School freshmen who were assigned to read it.
The action - per school policy - was prompted by an official complaint filed Wednesday with high school principal Brian Fortkamp about "The Freedom Writer's Diary."
Jeff Armstrong, a parent of one of the 83 freshman, filed the complaint. At the board of education meeting Oct. 14, he asked board members to ban the book that ninth-grade English teacher Jessica Rolfes had assigned to the students.
Board members after the meeting researched school policy and notified Armstrong that a formal objection needed to be filed before a committee of school and community representatives would be appointed to review the book and make a recommendation.
According to Fortkamp, committee members will read the book, review the complaint and discuss the issue with parents. The committee also will allow Rolfes to explain why she assigned the book before making a recommendation to the school board.
Rolfes, a first-year teacher, several weeks ago sent the book home with students and included a letter to parents explaining the nonfiction edition contained references to "abortion, oral sex, racial slurs, mild mention of drugs and some moderate profanity."
The book was written in 1999 by The Freedom Writers, a group of students from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., and their teacher, Erin Gruwell.
According to Rolfes' letter to parents, Gruwell assigned her at-risk students to read "Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl" and "Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo." After reading the books, the students wrote anonymous journal entries about their own lives that were published in the book.
Rolfes has said she assigned the book to students in South Carolina where she formerly taught and had encountered no objections.
The day after Armstrong verbally objected to the book, the board informed Rolfes she would have to assign another book for the class while the issue was under investigation.
Armstrong on Wednesday told the Daily Standard he had read the book "line by line, cover to cover" and filed his complaint with Fortkamp earlier in the day.
"We are going to follow procedure and let the board make the decision," Armstrong said.
Fortkamp said he has read the book and enjoyed it.
"I think the journal entries in the book connect with students I see every day walking our halls," he said. "I see students here in a very similar situation."
Fortkamp said he would not comment on whether he feels the book is appropriate for the freshman class.
"I'm leaving that up to the committee and the board," he said.
Fortkamp at the board meeting said he had been approached by Rolfes this summer regarding the book and had read reviews of it. However, at the time he hadn't read it.
"Now that I've read it, I went back and read even more reviews," Fortkamp said. "Those reviews say the book is appropriate for youth, educational reasons and young adults. But, like I said, I think it's best for the committee to decide and make a recommendation."
According to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the book in 2008 was removed from 11th-grade English classes at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis while students were in the process of reading it. No formal complaint process reportedly was initiated. The book remains available in the high school library, the foundation noted.
The book also was challenged in 2007 in Howell, Mich., by members of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education with assistance from the Michigan chapter of the American Family Association for its sexual themes and profanity. ABFFE and the National Coalition Against Censorship and other free expression groups sent a letter to the school board urging them to retain the book.
That school board eventually voted 5-2 in favor of keeping the book in the school.