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Superintendent recommends controversial book remain in Sauk Prairie High School course

May 23, 2017

Unless an appeal is filed, the Sauk Prairie School District will keep author Sherman Alexie’s controversial book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” as part of a ninth grade course.

Sauk Prairie School District Administrator Cliff Thompson announced at the May 22 School Board meeting his decision to agree with a complaint committee’s majority vote to keep the book in the high school curriculum.

Controversy over the book started in April when parents of a Sauk Prairie High School student filed an official complaint with the district over its use in the district’s curriculum. As per district policy, a complaint review committee was formed and first met April 5. A second meeting was held on April 19, where a majority voted in favor of keeping the book in the curriculum. Thompson was the charged with the decision to either remove or keep the book in the curriculum.

Thompson read a statement to the board in front of a packed room at the May 22 meeting.

“The complaint review process provided a unique opportunity for the school district to engage parents and community members and to review our communication and teaching practices.” Thompson said.

He said he is directing the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction to work with the school principals and teachers on two areas: including information about text and media resources in course syllabi to provide ample time for parent and student review and developing a consistent practice where students choosing an alternative text can remain in the classroom with their peers.

“It is my heartfelt hope that the professional conversations that have taken place so far in this process and the suggestions/recommendations I have provided will serve as a starting point for new and additional conversations as we strive to work together as home and school to instruct and care for our students in the Sauk Prairie School District,” Thompson said.

A handful of residents spoke against the book, with one resident even going so far as to suggest allowing the book to remain in the curriculum is a real life example of persecution being played out in the Sauk Prairie School District.

“So many excerpts from this book brought up so many controversial topics,” said Randy Mack. “The teachers and administrators told us the issues were discussed and our children were in a safe learning environment and well protected in these discussions. That our English teachers instruct our students that masturbation is a sinful behavior and contributes to an epidemic of pornography … I doubt it. We are all being tested here as to where our hearts are, and if we are on the wide path to hell or the narrow path that goes to heaven. We need to protect our children people.”

Thompson said he hopes the decision will bring people together in conversation, to listen to the voices that not only speak publicly, but the voices that speak in private, through emails, voicemails and personal conversations.

“Tonight my recommendation is not about a victory or a loss … this is not perfect place, it will not be a perfect place … it is an opportunity tonight to say I believe this should continue to be a part of the curriculum and I believe that the conversation should be stronger and greater than ever,” Thompson said.

Laura Breunig said words in a book do matter to kids, and pointed to the slender man incident where two 13-year-old girls stabbed a classmate in order to impress to a fictional character.

“If we ever think what we expose our children to, visually or though the written word is not of monumental importance, we only have to look at that situation,” Breunig said. She said the old adage about sticks and stones hurting but words don’t is untrue.

“Tell that to the child who is abused at home and called stupid, fat or dumb, or they go to school and they are ridiculed,” she said. “Words hurt. Words affect the minds of our children.”

In an earlier interview with the Eagle, Thompson said he took the complaint very seriously and took “as much time as was given to spend time in conversation, research and reflection in making his decision.”

If no appeal is filed within 30 days, the book will remain in the curriculum with the two recommendations Thompson made. If an appeal is filed, the school board would take over the review of the complaint.

In other board news:

Dennis Virta was interviewed by the board in open session and then unanimously voted to appoint Virta to a one-year term on the board, left vacant by Tara Birkett. He will represent the villages of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City.Sauk Prairie School District teachers Cindy Quam, Dan Reierson, Dave Sweeney, Lisa Ducke, Jill Stone Brisky, Susan Frederickson and Cheryl Sprecher are nominees for the 2017 Crystal Apple Award.The board accepted a bid for just over $74,000 from Hasheider Roofing and Siding, Ltd., to reroof sections one, six and seven of the River Arts Center.The board accepted a bid for $18,489 from Howard Grote & Sons Painting, Inc., to refinish the indoor swimming pool at Sauk Prairie High School.The board accepted a bid for $20,975 from CRM/ASC1 Inc. to supply and install new refrigeration equipment for a walk-in cooler and freezer in the Sauk Prairie High School kitchen.The board accepted a bid for $72,680 from Thermo Dynamics for labor and material to install four HTP high efficiency boilers at Sauk Prairie Middle School.The Friends of Education group donated $14,000 toward the new baseball field at Tower Rock Elementary.