Librarians Land BISD Atop Banned Book List
By Ken Fountain | Beaumont Enterprise
September 29, 2009
It’s a widely acclaimed book chronicling the lives of Texas high school students that has served as the basis for an equally lauded film and television series. And if you attend any school in the Beaumont Independent School District, you can’t check it out of the library.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas calls that “the most egregious instance of censorship reported last year” in a report on school book bannings that was released this week.
The book is “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, a Dream,” a 1990 nonfiction book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. Bissinger spent an entire year in Odessa following the exploits of the 1988 Permian High School Panthers football team as they headed to the state championship.
The book and its screen adoptions have been noted for their frank portrayals of students’ use of profanity, sexual situations and racism at the school and the wider community.
In February 2008, following a complaint by the parent of a sixth-grader at Odom Academy, a committee of school librarians decided by consensus to remove the two copies of the book at Beaumont schools – the one at Odom and one at Central High School, according to Rosalind Eyre, lead librarian for the district.
Because the decision had the effect of removing the book from all of the district’s libraries, the ACLU said “a ban of such magnitude is rare.”
The report, called “Free People Read Freely” is the group’s 13th annual report on challenged and banned books in Texas public school. There are no books removed by Beaumont ISD listed in the report for the 2008-09 school year.
Eyre said the Odom parent who challenged “Friday Night Lights” felt that its depictions of profanity, sexual situations and racism were not appropriate for a middle school student. When Eyre polled all of the district’s librarians, she discovered that only two of the district’s school libraries had copies of the book.
The fact that so few schools had the book is why the decision to remove it was made by a committee comprised only of librarians. In cases in which someone challenges a book that is found throughout the district, a review committee might be made up of librarians, parents and sometimes students, Eyre said. In this instance, she decided not to refer the matter to a review committee.
In the letter she sent to the complaining parent, Eyre wrote the book had been removed “due to inappropriate language, racist references and sexual situations.”
Eyre noted that while “Friday Night Lights” was removed from the district’s libraries, it is taught in some English classes, particularly at West Brook High School.
In an email to The Enterprise, Eyre called the book “a well-written, thoughtful study of racism in a West Texas football town but perhaps not appropriate for reading by younger students nor for older students without guided discussion.”
Efforts to contact author Bissinger for comment for this story were unsuccessful. But in an interview in the ACLU of Texas report, he said he was “saddened, a little surprised, and angered” by the Beaumont ISD decision.
“Sure, the book has a few obscenities. Whether we like to admit it or not, kids down to the age of five have heard obscenities,” Bissinger said in the interview.
“I thought Beaumont’s decision was a horrible form of censorship and extremely shortsighted,” he said, adding that he couldn’t think of what sexual content in the book might have contributed to its ban.
The author said he felt the book was important for people to read, particularly kids from age 14 and up, because “it talks honestly about race and the ways in which African-American athletes are treated poorly.”
“I’m also sorry if the people of Beaumont or anyone else got offended by the use of the n-word in the book,” Bissinger said, adding that he had been offended by the use of that word while he was living in Odessa in the late 1980s.
“If I don’t use that word in the book, then the whole impact of writing about racism would have been completely lost,” he said in the ACLU interview.
“For Beaumont (ISD) to think they are doing anyone a favor by sheltering and shielding kids from depictions of racism, they’re doing exactly the opposite. They are depriving kids of knowledge they should have so that they’re more sensitive to saying things that are inflammatory and aware of the repercussion of what can happen,” he said.
Dotty Griffin, public education director for the ACLU of Texas, said she wasn’t aware of any other school districts that have removed “Friday Night Lights” from their library shelves.
“Considering that is about high school students, it kind of strains credibility that you could ban a book like that from them.”
Griffin said it is not uncommon for districts to decide to remove books based on complaints by only one or a few people, which she called “a tyranny of a vocal minority.”
Eyre said that in the 15 years she has held her position, only one other book has been challenged on a district-wide basis: Mildred D. Taylor’s 1977 Newbery Medal-winning “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” The Depression-era novel deals with racism and segregation in the American South.
Eyre said the parent of an elementary school student challenged that book because it contains derogatory racial terms. The student complained because classmates were using those terms outside of class while they were reading the book.
In that instance, it was decided not to remove the book entirely, but not to use it in a classroom setting, Eyre said.
She said that if a review committee decides not to remove a challenged book, the complaining party can appeal that decision to the district administration, and then to the school board. The board would have to vote on whether to remove a book in an open meeting, she said.
Once a book is removed, a member of the public can have that decision reviewed by filling out a form. The decision to overturn a decision to remove a book would follow the same process, Eyre said.
“We don’t go out looking for books to ban,” she said. The district’s campus librarians make decisions on which book to add or remove from their shelves on a continual basis, she said.