ONEIDA, Illinois — The ROWVA School Board voted Tuesday, Jan. 18 to indefinitely postpone taking action to either suspend or allow a young-adult novel from being taught in freshman English classes.
The novel in question is titled "The Hate U Give," written by Angie Thomas and published in 2017.
According to the author's official website, the fictional events in the novel are based on the Black Lives Matter movement and come from an expanded short-story version Thomas previously wrote in college after the 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant.
Tuesday's meeting comes after the board previously decided to disallow the teaching of the novel during a closed session in November. After backlash from parents and community members, the board opened the discussion to public comment.
The board decided Tuesday it will review its school policies and put together a curriculum committee to review the book. In the meantime, teachers cannot require students to read "The Hate U Give" during class, but it will remain on the library shelves. A motion to make this the permanent decision failed after no board member seconded it.
The "controversial" novel is recommended for readers ages 14-17 and follows the events of 16-year-old Starr Carter, who is caught between an uneasy balance of, "the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends."
Starr witnesses a fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, who was unarmed and shot by a police officer. His death becomes a national headline with mixed messages from the media, leading to protests in the community and across the nation.
ROWVA freshman English teachers began teaching "The Hate U Give" in 2018, but the board said it was not aware of this. It was not specifically listed in any district curriculum, members explained.
One teacher told News 8 it was a novel that many of her students liked reading, adding that it was a favorite for some. The teachers would facilitate discussions about the novel during class time, just like any other book, but she said the outcry against it began when a parent found out the students had read it aloud during class one day.
That's when the board said it learned the book was being read in freshman English class, and it banned the novel in November, citing inappropriate language.
The book is not currently being taught in the 2021-22 school year, and the district is split on the topic. The ROWVA School Board heard an hour and a half of public comment pertaining to the issue Tuesday night.
Parents and community members in favor of keeping the book have also came together in an attempt to stop the ban, though the board claims it was never a "ban."
One of those parents, Tara Huizenga, is a part-time art teacher and currently has three daughters enrolled in the school district: a 5th grader, 6th grader and a senior in high school. Huizenga started an online petition called "Stop the Book Ban" that had over 100 signatures as of Tuesday evening.
She said she decided to take action not because of this individual novel but the idea behind banning books in general.
"It could open the door to further censoring," Huzienga said. "They say it's got language that's 'inappropriate.' I feel that's a cover for their real fears that it's racially sensitive."
Huzienga added the book deals with topics that are "culturally legitimate," especially surrounding the conversation of police treatment of Black people in America.
"She not only has a friend who was killed by an officer, her uncle, who she loves dearly, was an officer, so it gives both sides of how she's feeling torn between that anger towards the officer that killed her good friend and her uncle who has stepped up and taken care of her when her dad was in prison," she said. "I think personally, that's a good example that it doesn't just shed one light on the officers because some people have stressed that as being a concern of theirs, too."
Huzienga later told board members that she comes from a police family. Her father was an officer for 35 years and spent 20 as a police chief, and she said "this book would not have offended him."
She believes reading is supposed to offer a new perspective, and that's what ROWVA students need.
"Especially in a small, predominately white community like this? I think kids need to have that type of representation," Huzienga said. "They need to be able to read stories written by people of color, talking about people of color."
She added that students are smart enough to know when language is not appropriate, and they're exposed to it already on TV or social media.
ROWVA High School senior Abigail Lee expressed similar sentiments to the board, citing times students have yelled profanities at her while on campus. She said "The Hate U Give" is a modern book that "exposes your children to what the world is really like."
"The exposure of racism and diversity and inclusivity being mentioned frightens many parents," Lee said. "If language were truly the reasoning behind this fight, then let's ban 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as well, because while reading this book my sophomore year, classmates took it as a chance to say the n-word without being reprimanded. But if this is about the content, people are okay with us reading 'The Scarlet Letter.' The entire story is based around a woman having sex with the man who is not her husband and having a child as a result, the woman is publicly shamed. This 1800s novel is much outdated for today's education."
Later, one board member said maybe they should be taking a look at these two novels and make them free choice reading instead.
Lee further stated that the ROWVA community "lacks basic respect."
"The world has diversity. Anywhere your child goes, they will see diversity. What exactly is the harm of exposing them at a younger age?" she said. "It's time to help introduce diversity into smaller schools. I believe in education, especially English education, and having the freedom to allow students to think beyond their comfort zone."
Others expressed similar concern with the idea of censorship in schools.
"You're going to be offended, we're going to be offended, it's going to happen, but what we have to do from that is have a conversation," another ROWVA parent said. "We can't censor things, whether it be for language or content, because it upsets us. It should provoke a conversation, an adult conversation, where we can discuss the issues within the subject and within the book itself."
Others at the meeting said they just want transparency from the school board, asking how the ban decision was made in November and what kinds of discussions the board had.
One ROWVA parent and neighboring district teacher asked, "I'm hoping each board members have taken the time to read 'The Hate U Give,' so that they can make an informed decision. If not, I recommend it; it's an excellent book … Was there any kind of meeting with board members and administrators in the English department to discuss the impacts of the book?"
Many parents do cite the novel's language as the primary issue.
"The book, 'The Haute U Give,' has 89 instances of the f-word. That is not counting all the other swear words," one parent said. "This language should not be brought into the school. If every kid walked around the school and said exactly what is being read in this book, do you think that is appropriate? Because I know the Code of Conduct doesn't think so either."
This same parent printed out several copies of chapter 23 and underlined every sentence that used a swear word.
"Stop cramming curse words down our children's throats in order to meet the diversity education," another parent said. "There's got to be a better book."
Several spoke during the meeting about how they read the book themselves and agree the topics of diversity are important, but the language outweighs it.
"I personally have read the book, not just watched (the) PG-13 movie, and I do believe it is relevant to the world and has a lot of teaching moments and discussion topics, but not for 14- or 15-year-olds," a parent said. "The language in the book is offensive and obscene."
One man who spoke during the meeting, Andrew, said he believes a compromise could be made.
"If this book is allowed, it would be much more appropriate in an advanced literature class for juniors and seniors who should have a basis for critical thinking and decision making," he said. "Exposure to freshmen is not encouraging critical thought. It's normalizing vulgar behavior."
He would also like to see a book taught alongside it that will "balance it with another side of the issue."
President of the Galesburg branch of the NAACP Brittany Grimes also was in attendance at Tuesday night's meeting.
"I do understand that the age appropriateness may be called into question," Grimes said. "I hope there are more solutions, like changing the grade that this can be taught or discuss that. And if not, my ultimate question is do you intend to place current and even future literature under such scrutiny as you have this?"
Parents also voiced interest in the school requiring a permission slip before students are allowed to check the book out of the library.
Board members echoed similar statements as some of the parents who would like "The Hate U Give" to be kept out of classrooms, saying it's important to teach students diversity, but "There's gotta be something else out there that teaches the same topics with less language," and "How can we appropriately challenge our kids?"
Superintendent Joe Sornberger expressed his recommendation to neither ban nor suspend the book in any capacity. If any parents are uncomfortable with their children reading it in class, they can simply opt out and their kids can have an alternative assignment, he said.
The board did not outline a timeline for it's plans to review the book, school policy and curriculum further.
"The Hate U Give" was first banned by a Texas school district in 2017, when it was temporarily removed from library shelves before being returned.
At the time, author Angie Thomas posted the below statement on Twitter.
"The Hate U Give" made the American Library Association's 2020 list of the most challenged books in American schools.