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West Albany text draws parent complaint

West Albany text draws parent complaint

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A novel depicting a grim, dystopian future, particularly for women, is under scrutiny at West Albany High School following a complaint from a parent who has asked for its reconsideration.

Following district policy, Greater Albany Public Schools has convened a review committee to consider the Margaret Atwood novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," which was assigned to students in West Albany's AP English course for the first time earlier this month. 

The committee is made up of eight people, including community residents and district staff. It is expected to have a recommendation for the superintendent and Albany School Board to consider by Friday, with results made public the following week, after it is reviewed. 

The novel tells the story of Offred, a woman living in a futuristic, Christian religion-based dictatorship where women's rights are so restricted she has lost even the use of her own real name.

Offred is a handmaid, a slave kept strictly for procreation and only then under the strictest of rules. Among other things, the novel explores the themes of sexuality, women's rights, religious extremism and totalitarian governments.

Katrina Montgomery, whose son is a senior in the class, said her son came to her with concerns after reading the reviews and notes pertaining to it.

"He said, 'Mom, I cannot read this book,'" she recalled. “I got in and looked at it, and I was also appalled and horrified that they would allow this book in high school.”

Montgomery said she researched critical analyses from various professors and asked friends who had been teachers or librarians to share their thoughts on the choice.

She said her research, combined with excerpts from the novel and the comments of her friends, brought her to the conclusion that the book's level of violence and explicitly sexual passages made it unacceptable as a high school assignment

Although Montgomery acknowledged she did not read the full novel herself, she said she agreed with one former educator who concluded that "any of the ideas in this book that would have been worth considering, like law and women's rights and government control, they’re so buried in all the graphic and violent and sexually explicit contact … that any learning opportunity is completely lost in this book."

Although Montgomery was the only person to file a formal complaint, she was joined at the committee's first meeting by more than a dozen other parents and students, all of whom said they supported her stance. 

Montgomery noted the high school requires teachers to receive special permission to show even a portion of an R-rated movie in class.

“One of my biggest complaints is we were never notified they were using explicit material in the classroom, so parents have no idea that their kids are reading this stuff," she said. "They do nothing like that for literature, and this literature is far more explicit than any R-rated movie.” 

Montgomery said she spoke with the teacher, Blain Willard, about her concerns and he offered an alternative novel, "Jane Eyre." Her son and eight other students chose that book, and 71 students chose "The Handmaid's Tale."

Frequently challenged

Published in 1985, the novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 and has been nominated for a Booker Prize and a Nebula Award. It is also among the American Library Association's most frequently challenged novels.

Jason Hay, the school district's director of secondary curriculum and the facilitator of the reconsideration committee, said the book selection was a part of the district's textbook adoption process, which took place last year and involved a committee of high school language arts teachers.

He said the adoption committee researched what is commonly taught in AP Literature classes nationwide and also reviewed recommendations from The College Board.

"The team desired to balance the curriculum between older, classic texts and more contemporary, highly acclaimed texts," he said in an email to the Democrat-Herald. "It was also hoped that the curriculum would reflect the world we live in today and would provide a variety of perspectives: male, female, African, European, American, and Asian. Ultimately, the benchmark for each text’s selections was being a high quality piece of literature worthy of study in a college-level course."

Hay said no policy states parents will be notified about each book taught or the material it contains. In this case, however, he said all parents and students were given a list of the titles and the teacher had them sign that they received the information.

South Albany High School isn't using the novel in class this year, but Hay said it was chosen and read by about 15 students earlier in the year during an independent reading activity. No complaints were received, he said.

Montgomery said she doesn't wish to remove the novel from the school entirely, only from being required reading. 

"I’m not a book-banner. I’m not asking that this book be banned. But I don't think it should be assigned in a classroom," she said. "What I think is wrong here is that the parents are not being informed and that kids are being assigned this stuff.”

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