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Sauk Prairie School Board declines to announce fate of controversial book

July 11, 2017 GMT

The Sauk Prairie School Board made a secret decision about the fate of a controversial Sherman Alexie book during its regular meeting July 10. Board President Ryan Jesberger said the result of the closed session vote will not be announced until the board’s July 24 meeting.

The closed session was called to determine whether the Alexie book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” will remain part of the curriculum for the high school’s freshman English class, according to Sauk Prairie Superintendent Cliff Thompson.

In May, Thompson made a recommendation to keep the book in the high school curriculum. He also sought a new way for educators to communicate with parents about controversial reading assignments and the use of alternative texts.

Parents appealed the decision to the school board, which considered the matter and took a vote during the closed session July 10, according to school board member Dennis Virta. The result of that decision has not been made public.

On June 29, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state’s open meetings law applied to an Appleton school committee that met privately to review material for a freshman reading class, according to the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. A parents group sued the district over the private meetings and the justices unanimously agreed the meetings and decisions made should have been public. A circuit court has yet to determine whether the district will be responsible to pay attorney’s fees for the parent group in the case.

Wisconsin’s open meetings law generally does not allow public bodies to vote on public matters during closed sessions. The board’s agenda for the meeting cited the reason for the closed session was to “conduct quasi-judicial deliberations on the appeal from the book complaint decision made by the Superintendent and the District’s Book Review Committee...”

Bill Lueders, President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the exemption cited from the state’s open meetings law may not be sufficient to justify the action.

“Based on what I know of this situation, it’s highly doubtful the school board had the authority to go into closed session for the judicial or quasi judicial exemption,” Lueders said. “As far as I can tell there is no trial or hearing that this concerns.”

When contacted by phone July 11, Thompson said he was not comfortable commenting on the reasons for the closed session, closed vote and not releasing the result until talking with the district’s attorney David McFarlane. Thompson said he did not take part in the closed session meeting.

Residents of the district have been vocal about the book, and many cited the use of foul language, the depiction of violence and content of sexual nature as well as immorality as reasons the book should be pulled from the curriculum. Proponents of keeping the book have said the author has a powerful message within the text and gives voice to an underserved representation of society.

Mitch Maier, who previously spoke against the book, told the board that after reading it, he thought it was a good book.

“But it does have some stuff in it so inappropriate you’d blush if I read it here,” he said.

Erika Larson said she will have a son in the ninth grade in the fall and the book topic piqued her interest. She said she counted 117 bad words and repeats could be found in the book and admitted there were some questionable passages.

However, she said, her father grew up in East Germany and talked to her about oppression.

“He defected,” she said. “We cannot ban books. This is not East Germany. The book is insightful and valid and absolutely appropriate for a ninth grader.”

Nick and Ringelstetter, who along with his wife, Kay, has opposed the book since the controversy began, said things children read do impact them. He said in sixth grade his son read a book about a fighter pilot and decided that’s what he wanted to be.

“One courageous mother has brought it to our attention in Sauk Prairie, not asking to be banned, just removed from the curriculum,” Nick Ringelstetter said. “It’s actually being banned in districts that have the courage to act on the concerns of parents rather than giving in to the pressures of state and national organizations that have different goals.”

Lisa Enerson, the parent who first challenged the district’s use of the book, said she doesn’t mind if the book is on the shelf because parents have the right to decide whether it should be read by their child.

Jenna McCann, a teacher at Merrimac Community Charter School, said she loves books.

“I’m a Christian and I support this book to be used in a curriculum,” she said. “I am a teacher and I am not afraid of losing my job over this book. Books make connections. And many of the students at Sauk Prairie High School connect with the character of Arnold in this book, whether they are connecting with his poverty, struggle to improve himself, the alcoholism or abuse or any of those cultural things, this gives those students a connection and gives them a voice in a character they can relate to.”