South Summit School District could ban ‘Brave New World’ following parent request
Mother of sophomore requested book be evaluated under 'sensitive materials' law
A classic novel highly regarded for its themes addressing the use of technology to control a society and individuality could be banned from the South Summit School District after a high school student’s mother raised concerns about the book.
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley was among the reading choices in a now-completed dystopian literature unit being taught as part of a tenth grade honors English class, according to School District Superintendent Greg Maughan.
The novel, which was published in 1932, features a futuristic, totalitarian society, but it was the depictions of supposed promiscuity that led a parent to request the book be reviewed under the state’s “sensitive materials” in schools and curriculum law.
School districts in Utah are required to have a policy in place for parents to opt their children out of certain curricula and they must also provide a process for instructional materials to be evaluated by a committee of stakeholders.
Requests can be made by parents, employees, board of education members and students. Group members and, in most cases, the individual requesting the review, must read the materials in full.
In the case of the South Summit School District, the review committee consists of a school administrator; two parents; and two teachers, one of whom must work in the subject area of the curriculum in question but cannot be the instructor.
“There are only two things we can review a book for. One of them is whether it meets the criteria for sensitive materials … which is defined in the code as pornography and obscenity,” said Shelley Halverson, the district’s curriculum director. “Or we can review a book to determine what grade level it is appropriate in.”
The first priority of the review committee is to decide whether Huxley’s novel meets the requirements of a three-prong test, known as the Roth or Miller test, used by courts to determine if materials are obscene. The analysis asks whether a work appeals to “prurient interest,” whether it depicts or describes sexual conduct in an offensive way, and whether it lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value when taken as a whole.
Once the committee finishes the book, they will meet to discuss whether it should be categorized as obscene, with a final decision based on a majority vote. Members could opt to limit the teaching of the novel to certain grade levels or it could be deemed inappropriate for public school – resulting in its removal from classrooms and the library.
This is the first time the School District has undergone the “sensitive materials” review process, Halverson said, and officials are unsure how long it will take to resolve. The committee may need to have multiple discussions about the novel before making a determination.
No other books are up for review at this time.
South Summit teachers determine which literature they want to teach during a prep period, according to Halverson. She speculated this was the first time “Brave New World” appeared on the East Side district’s reading list. All South Summit faculty receive training on the “sensitive materials” law because the standards of the Miller test are based on the surrounding community.
That’s why a controversial novel, like “Brave New World,” could be taught in one school district but not another. Halverson said it’s important for each English Language Arts department to make that decision on their own.
“In that same legislation that talks about what curriculum should do, it talks about providing balanced viewpoints and representing all the different groups that we come across in the United States,” she said. “We’ve talked a lot about how it shouldn’t be polarizing because we’re presenting all of the information on both sides.”
Still, administrators are tasked with balancing trusting staff in the classroom and parents’ ability to opt their children out of a lesson.
“If, despite what you’re presenting and how balanced it is, a parent does not want their child to participate in that, they have that right to request an alternative assignment,” Halverson said. “I feel like that also gives balance that an individual parent can say ‘That’s not for us.’”
She and Maughan supported the review process. They said they don’t believe it promotes book banning because it involves a partnership between various education stakeholders and the decision is made by a committee with differing viewpoints. Thus far, they’ve had positive interactions with the sophomore’s mother and welcome her feedback.
The superintendent indicated it was likely “Brave New World” would have been evaluated regardless of whether a formal review was filed by a parent, to help staff better understand the new review process.
Halverson expected the committee would make a final decision on the novel at the end of the month, before the School District goes on April break.
The arsenic-and-lead-containing soil has been a contentious issue for the district, which piled it onto the junior high campus in actions that were later discovered to be in violation of a covenant with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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