Muscogee school district refuses to ban 'My Brother Sam is Dead'

Parents object to profanity in acclaimed novel

spauff@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 26, 2009 

Sam may be dead, but his story will continue to live on the shelves of Muscogee County school libraries.

The Muscogee County School District’s eight-member media committee voted unanimously Wednesday to keep the young-adult novel “My Brother Sam is Dead” in all elementary school libraries, despite a parent’s concerns about profanity in the book.

The Revolutionary War novel by writer James Lincoln Collier and historian Christopher Collier tells the story of the Meeker family through the eyes of the youngest son, 14-year-old Tim. It has won critical acclaim for its dramatic prose and historical accuracy, and for its relevance to instruction in history and civics.

Shirley Waller, whose daughter checked out the book from the Reese Road Elementary library, filed a complaint with the district stating that the novel had too much profanity.

On the back of her complaint form, she listed 19 terms she found objectionable from the book. Fourteen were the word “damn” or some variation of the word, three of which could be considered blasphemous. Waller noted discipline problems could result from children using such language in school.

“I’m shocked,” she said after the committee’s vote. “I cannot believe that this entire committee thinks this is an appropriate book, that this is wholesome and appropriate.”

The book was evaluated based on state curriculum guidelines in English and social studies and for its authenticity, appropriateness, content and interest. The media committee included several school media specialists and administrators who spoke up in support of the book.

“It’s a very well-written book, very gripping,” said Beth Beasley, the media specialist at Mathews Elementary. “It gave you a point of view that might not be found in a history book.”

Melanie Harmon, the PTA president at Reese Road who sat on the committee, said she was impressed with the book’s level of detail, and that, as a parent, she had no concerns about the appropriateness of the novel.

But Waller said educators and librarians should consider if a book meets guidelines for acceptable language and behavior before considering its educational value.

“Profanity is not allowed in the Muscogee County School District. That should be the first criteria.” she said. “It should pass basic guidelines of what is acceptable behavior.”

Waller did not speak during the meeting; she said since she was invited by the committee to come, she thought she would be asked to state her opinion and was waiting to be recognized. She said after the meeting that she did not think the committee addressed her concerns about the novel’s profanity.

Instructional specialist Doreen Sears said Waller’s complaint was covered under the selection criteria for appropriateness — if the book, vocabulary, content, concepts and themes were suited for the intended audience. All of the committee members felt the book met or exceeded this guideline.

“We were evaluating the book as a whole, not taking one part out of context,” Sears said.

The committee’s options included leaving the book in elementary libraries, removing it, restricting access to it without a parent’s permission and moving it from elementary to middle or high school libraries.

The committee’s decision to leave the book in elementary libraries can be appealed to the school board. Waller has not decided whether to file an appeal.

The committee’s decision received applause from one person at the meeting.

Jim Brown, a retired educator and substitute for the school district, came to the meeting with his wife, Leda, after reading about the controversy and looking for copies of “My Brother Sam is Dead.” He said he couldn’t find a copy in the Shaw High School library, where he was subbing, so he went looking for it at a bookstore. He picked up one of the last two copies.

“People are obviously interested,” he said. Leda Brown said children could pick up profane language from many places, so parents should be aware of their children’s choice in music, movies and books.

“Parents have to be informed of what they are reading,” she said.

Waller said she will be watching more carefully what her daughter checks out of the school’s library, something she didn’t feel she had to do before.

“I didn’t know I needed to,” Waller said. “I just really wanted other parents to know it does exist. I talked to parents who did not know.”

Contact Sara Pauff at 706-320-4469

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