During the public comment portion of the Park City School District Board of Education meeting last Tuesday, five different parents took to the podium to voice their concerns over the eight lectures Alexie gave on Sept. 19 and 20 at the high school.
The issues came about when the district selected Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" novel as the required summer reading for every high school student. Alexie was then invited to speak at the high school about the novel. According to Kristen Brown, mother of two Park City High School graduates and a ninth-grader in the district, Alexie used "brainwash and indoctrination techniques" with the students.
"The district allowed our children to be sworn at, put down and debased," Brown said. "This administration has completely broken faith with the parents of the district."
While Brown does not currently have a child attending the high school, she said "it took [her] a while to get what [she] believed to be credible sources.
This comes off the heels of September's school board meeting when parents complained that they felt they had not been informed the book contained "sexually explicit" content and that no clear alternative had been given to the students to read.
After parents articulated concerns about the content of the book, Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley issued a statement on the district website along with "opt out" forms for parents to sign if they did not want their children to have to read the novel or attend the lecture.
"In reviewing how to positively impact our summer reading program, we did have an alternative reading that explored the same type of themes as the Sherman Alexie selection," Conley said. "Additionally, parents had to sign a form to opt into the lecture."
In the district's defense, one mother said it was very clear to her that there were two options when it came to the summer reading and that her daughter informed her that Alexie had made no such obscene remarks.
This sparked an investigation of the allegations by Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley. She found that the claims made by upset parents were true. He did "berate" the students at some of the eight lectures, but not all, which was the cause of the confusion.
In the aftermath of the lectures, Brown said that she contacted the Park City Education Foundation who helped procure Alexie for the Author-in-Residence program and was upset to find that they were still proud to have brought Alexie to the high school.
Abby McNulty, executive director of the Ed Foundation, said that it has worked with the high school's English department for the last four years to provide all high school students with the opportunity to participate in conversation with an artist.
"Author Sherman Alexie and filmmaker Chris Eyre engaged students in dialogue about the craft of writing, filmmaking, and the themes of identity, culture and bullying, which are addressed in their work," McNulty said. "Every year, PCEF's Assessment Committee evaluates every dollar we invest in Park City schools, and all input on the Author-in-Residence program is welcome and will be part of the assessment."
While parents were displeased with the handling of the author-in-residence program, Conley felt the same way about how critics responded. She felt that she could not do her job effectively as the board meeting was the first time she had heard parental concerns about the lectures.
"I would greatly appreciate being informed of future issues with a phone call or email to allow me the opportunity to address these issues without being informed at a governing board meeting, in which I cannot defend, deny or admit any information in that forum," Conley said. "I am an open, reasonable individual that sees multiple perspectives."
Meanwhile, Brown and other parents hope that the district will look further into the required reading in the coming years.
"I ask you to, in the future, be more aware of what we are inviting into our community," one father said at the school board meeting. "There are better things out there, and we can choose them."