West Ada School District to Take Up Controversial Reading List at Sept. 9 Meeting


The ongoing flap over whether to allow The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian on the supplemental reading list for the West Ada School District may come to a head today, with the Supplemental Book List Committee expected to present its recommendations to the West Ada School Board.

Board members voted 2-1 in April to remove the book, by Northwest author Sherman Alexie, following complaints that it contained sexual references and foul language.

The decision to withhold the title from the supplemental reading list for grades 6-12 touched off a storm of controversy, with two Washington residents going so far as to purchase more than 350 copies of Absolutely True Diary to be distributed to students. Fundraising for the effort drew more than $3,000.

In late August, the school district embarked on a wide-ranging review of all the titles on its supplemental reading list—including a total of nearly 250 books.

The National Coalition Against Censorship stepped in to express its displeasure with the school board’s decision to put True Diary “on hold,” and on Sept. 8 issued a letter calling on trustees to “take seriously the constitutional obligation not to exclude books ‘simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.’” The book is one of the most frequently challenged in America.

NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin told Boise Weekly that depending on how the West Ada School Board decides at its Sept. 9 meeting, it could be opening itself to legal action.

“There’s always recourse,” she said. “We are not a litigation organization, but there is the possibility that somebody could file a First Amendment complaint.”

Stressing that NCAC is not “enemies of school boards,” Bertin added that sometimes school officials “don’t really understand that they have these legal obligations that they have to comply with.”

“Once you go down this road [of withholding books based on parental complaints], there’s no stopping it,” she said. “Pretty soon you invite this kind of ‘trying to please everybody.’ You get yourself into a situation that creates more community division than you solve.

“You think you’re going to get the squeaky wheel with the oil, but you end up with 20 squeaking wheels and one can of oil,” Bertin added.

The NCAC has a strong track record of swaying school boards away from book bans.

“When we are involved in a controversy like this, before a book is removed, we have a very high success rate—in the 80 percent range,” Bertin said. “After a book is removed, it’s harder, but it’s still 60, 65 percent of the time we are able to come in, get people to step back and think, ‘Well, maybe it’s not such a good idea.’

“I would say our ability to affect these outcomes is substantial,” she said.

It’s unclear whether West Ada trustees will make any final decisions regarding the reading list at the meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the District Service Center, 1303 East Central Drive in Meridian, and a call to the district went unanswered. But Bertin said her organization will be watching the outcome, and hopes that officials will come down on the side of allowing Absolutely True Diary to remain on the reading list.

“There are, I promise you, parents in the school district who want their kids to read this book,” she said. “It’s a National Book Award winner … it’s a really deeply moving, highly acclaimed book that we know from many years of dealing with it and with Sherman is life-changing. …

“What we object to is having the preferences of some imposed on all,” she added.