Monett High School removes social justice book 'Dear Martin' after parent complaints

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Following complaints, Monett High School has removed a social justice book recently assigned to freshmen.

English teachers Chelsea Wagner and Megan Gonzalez notified parents in writing last week that reading "Dear Martin," an award-winning young adult book by Nic Stone, would be required.

In the permission slip sent to parents, they described the New York Times Bestseller as a "gripping novel that tells the story of an Ivy League-bound African American student named Justyce who becomes a victim of racial profiling."

Superintendent Mark Drake said parents objected to the book selection as well as the way the teachers' letter was written.

"When the letter went out, we received several responses," he said Thursday.

The book "Dear Martin" by Nic Stone was removed from Monett schools this spring.
The book "Dear Martin" by Nic Stone was removed from Monett schools this spring.

In the letter, teachers acknowledged the selection includes "sensitive content including acts of violence, police brutality, frequent swearing" and other content readers might find "disturbing."

However, they also wrote in the letter that if parents did not consent, their children "will still be required to read an approved novel covering similar topics, but the workload may be much more difficult for them."

"We sent out a permission letter that didn't go through administrative approval," Drake said.

He said the book had not previously been taught in the 2,277-student district, which is one of the most racially diverse in southwest Missouri. The demographics: 51.6 percent white, 39.7 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 2.8 percent multi-racial.

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"Dear Martin" (referring to Martin Luther King Jr.) was banned in at least one Georgia district and has been challenged in others.

In a follow-up letter to parents, Monett High School Principal Stephanie Heman said the administration was aware of the situation, reviewed the book and decided a change was in order.

She said students initially assigned "Dear Martin" will instead be required to read "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee.

"We sincerely apologize for the stress this situation has caused our families," she wrote.

Heman invited any parent with a question to contact the school.

"Our district is undergoing many procedure changes and the vetting of books is amongst those changes," she wrote. "Selecting books for students to read in the classroom will undergo strict review to avoid similar situations."

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Drake said curriculum changes will be reviewed in advance by a committee of teachers, parents and administrators. The updated process is expected to be in place by the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Asked if "Dear Martin" would have been approved had it gone through the process, he said: "That's an interesting question. I don't know that I know the answer."

He added that the book has not been "banned" from the district. But, at least for now, the book will be not taught.

"It would be a book that would go through the committee if the teacher still wanted to teach that or even if we wanted to have it on the shelf of the library," he said.

Ana Espinoza, director of communications, said the district has copies of the book that can be checked out by parents who want to read it.

Drake said curriculum must align with Missouri Learning Standards, which identify what students ought to learn by academic subject and grade level.

"We would have wanted to see what activities and lessons were planned, just like we would with any book ... We just want to see what is going to be taught," he said. "As long as what is being taught goes back to the standards then I don't know that there would be an issue."

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He acknowledged there are parents who oppose the book and others who support the book and want it to be available. Both sides have been vocal on social media including community forums.

Parent Andy Brandt, who has three children in the district, disagrees with the decision to remove the book from the spring semester plan for English I.

"You don't ban books. Banning books is the same as burning books, in my opinion," he said.

Brandt added that the district's plan to pre-screen any new reading material or curricular changes is worrisome.

"They said they've got this review team that is going to basically filter these books in the future. To me, that is terrifying," he said. "They don't need to be banning any more books because of a small, vocal minority."

He added: "If they think this book is wrong, I question their ability to filter the other books."

Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to criley@news-leader.com.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Monett High School removes book 'Dear Martin' after parent complaints

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