Belleville Parents and Students Win WLA/WEMTA Intellectual Freedom Award

Posted by Lisa Strand on Friday, March 11, 2011 in Libraries in the News
For their staunch dedication to preserving First Amendment rights and for their well-reasoned defense for keeping Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes as part of the ninth-grade curriculum at Belleville High School, the parents and students of Belleville who supported retaining that book have been selected to receive the 2011 Intellectual Freedom Award given jointly by the Wisconsin Library Association & the Wisconsin Educational Media & Technology Association.

The WLA/WEMTA nomination review committee voted unanimously to give this year's award to the six parents and four students from Belleville who successfully overcame a censorship challenge at their local high school. Their campaign supported a well-reviewed book which had been part of a teacher’s curriculum for nine years. Steadfast advocacy on behalf of intellectual freedom for high school students is neither an easy nor a quick undertaking. It was, however, grass roots organizing at its best.

The circumstances began in September 2010, when the Belleville parent of one ninth-grade student opposed keeping Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes on the reading list put together by the student’s teacher, Peggy Kruse. The parent criticized the book’s inclusion in the list because of that individual’s perception that the book contained “pornographic and sexual content” on several pages. In addition, the parent considered the book to be religiously biased because it had “at least 52 pages where the Lord’s name is taken in vain or there are swear words or other vulgar words.” The complainant also asserted “characters ‘portrayed as Christians’ are sometime ridiculed or portrayed in a negative way.”

The parent was offered the option of having her son read a different book. This solution, however, was rejected. A committee put together by the school reviewed the book and said it should be kept. That decision was appealed to the school superintendent who in due course agreed with the committee. His assessment led to the parent appealing that judgment to the school board.

Then the parents and students supporting the book began organizing. They contacted Stacy Harbaugh at the Madison office of the ACLU and worked together on developing ideas for retaining Crutcher’s book. The parents:  Trish Paris, Teresa McMahon, Kelly Forman, Julie Sutter-Blair, Gregg Furseth and Tricia Droes; and the students: Bridget Droes, Dylan Paris, Taylor Forman and Patrick Blair created an outstanding public awareness campaign which brought more than 200 people to the school board’s meeting. The outcome of that gathering was that the book was kept in the curriculum. As Sandy Walejko, in attendance that night put it, “it was a great night for freedom.”

The Parents and Students of Belleville, WI High School who successfully defended the right to keep Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes in the curriculum will be recognized and honored on Monday evening, March 21, 2011 at the WEMTA Awards Banquet which will be held at the Monona Terrace Conference and Convention Center Madison, Wisconsin.

Financial support of the Intellectual Freedom Award is provided by TeachingBooks.net and the Center for Information Policy Research at the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies.
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