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January 31, 2010

Menifee school panel will review banned dictionary

1-30-2010 California:

The Menifee Union School District is forming a committee to review whether dictionaries containing the definitions for sexual terms should be permanently banned from the district's classrooms, a district official said Friday.

The 9,000-student K-8 district this week pulled all copies of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary after an Oak Meadows Elementary School parent complained about a child stumbling across definitions for "oral sex."

The decision was made without consultation with the district's school board and has raised concerns among First Amendment experts and some parents.

Other parents and Menifee residents, though, have praised the district's decision, saying a collegiate-level dictionary is inappropriate for younger children.

A memo from the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction this week called the Merriam-Webster dictionary a respected resource but noted district officials found that "a number of referenced words are age-inappropriate."

District spokeswoman Betti Cadmus said Friday that principals, teachers and parents will be on the committee along with district representatives.

The committee will "determine the extent to which the challenged material supports curriculum, the educational appropriateness of the material and its suitability to the age level of the students," according to school district policy.

Cadmus wouldn't estimate how long the committee might take to review the dictionaries.

The collegiate dictionaries were purchased several years ago to allow advanced readers in the fourth and fifth grades to look up words that they didn't know, Cadmus said.

Other less extensive and more elementary dictionaries remain available to students, she said.

The committee will decide what to do with the Merriam-Webster dictionaries if the ban becomes permanent. The district paid $24 for each dictionary, which are currently stored away from students. They might be sold or exchanged for other dictionaries, Cadmus said.

The district received three calls to the superintendent's office about the dictionaries Friday, Cadmus said.

Free-speech advocates

Free-speech and anti-censorship experts called the ban an overreaction.

"If a public school were to remove every book because it contains one word deemed objectionable to some parent, then there would be no books at all in our public libraries," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, of which The Press-Enterprise is a member. "I think common sense seems to be lacking in this school."

Whether banning a dictionary would actually violate free-speech laws is a complicated legal question, Scheer said. But the decision to remove the reference books "certainly offends free-speech principles and values that all public schools should hold dear," he said.

Joan Bertin, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, whose members include the American Library Association, said dictionary bans have happened in the past, although none has been reported since the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were efforts to ban the American Heritage dictionary at schools in Alaska, Indiana, Missouri and California, she said. The Merriam-Webster's dictionary came under scrutiny in New Mexico in the mid-1990s.

"It's rare but not unheard of," Bertin said.

The Menifee ban is particularly troubling, because it is based on one parent's complaint, Bertin said.

The school's committee should review the book before making a decision to take it off the shelves, she said.

"Normally people only use a dictionary to look up a word they have heard or read, which means they have been exposed to the word and are trying to understand," Bertin said.

"This is an example of parents overreacting because of their own personal perspective on what the word reveals and what it means," she said. "They don't want their kids to know this happens."

California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said parents need to get involved and talk to their children about what they consider appropriate and inappropriate.

"It's quite possible that no one could have foreseen that kids would look up words that pique their curiosity," Jung said.

Parent reaction

Raul Avila, who has four children who attend school in the district, two of them at Oak Meadows, said Friday that he had not heard about the dictionary dustup.

"What is the world turning into? The dictionary? Are you serious?" he said. "I think it's an extreme reaction for them to do that."

Avila said it's nearly impossible to prevent children from stumbling upon words and phrases that might be inappropriate for their ages.

"All you've got to do is turn on the TV," he said

Brenda Maple is a former fifth-grade teacher at Oak Meadows and has two young children who attend school in the district. She, too, had not heard about the removal of the dictionaries.

"I think that's overboard," she said.

Pulling the dictionaries from the shelves won't prevent the students from finding potentially objectionable words, she said. They could just as easily look them up during their computer lab sessions in school.

Using the dictionary is a good thing, she said. "That's a skill that you're teaching these fifth-graders -- research. That's a big part of fifth grade," she said.

After all, Maple said, "Who didn't look up bad words when they were kids?"

But Glenn and Barbara Lassiter, whose 10-year-old granddaughter is a student at Oak Meadows, said they think the school district is handling the situation appropriately.

Glenn Lassiter said the district could surely find dictionaries that are designed with younger readers in mind that don't contain explicit references.

Parents and school officials should do all they can to shield young children from explicit terms, Barbara Lassiter said.

"I don't think the school should sit down and just go through everything. That would be an impossible task," she said.

But when something like this comes up that a parent finds objectionable, district officials should consider whether it needs to be removed from the classroom, she said.

"They're doing exactly the right thing," she said. ..Source.. DUANE W. GANG, DAYNA STRAEHLEY and SARAH BURGE
The Press-Enterprise

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