McMinn school board holds line on vote to remove 'Maus' from eighth-grade curriculum
Feb. 11—ATHENS, Tenn. — Calls by demonstrators for the McMinn County school board to reverse its Jan. 10 decision to remove Art Spiegelman's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel on the Holocaust, "Maus," from the county's eighth-grade curriculum Thursday were unsuccessful, as board members did not take up a discussion on the matter.
It was the panel's first meeting since the backlash began over the board's removal of the book in a 10-0 vote.
The board's attorney, Scott Bennett, interrupted in the middle of four speakers addressing the board and calling for a reversal and reconsideration of "Maus." The speakers were arguing the board violated its own policy in removing the book. Bennett was asked by board chair Sharon Brown to describe the role of board policy.
"The board can't violate its own policy. Policies exist to serve the board," Bennett said. "The board does not exist to serve the policies."
He said the board can empanel an advisory committee for analysis, but the board is not bound by that committee's input. The board is the final decision-maker.
Bennett said his recollection was the Jan. 10 meeting was called because board member Jonathan Pierce was concerned about "Maus" because it was going to be used in the classroom the next day.
"It's a really important point," he said. "The board is the arbiter of community standards."
There was no further discussion, but at the close of the meeting, board member Mike Cochran said he stood by the decision and noted that he recently discussed the matter with a local rabbi whom he said agreed the book was inappropriate even in his synagogue.
The removal of the book "had nothing to do with the Holocaust," said Cochran, who also said he'd read "Maus."
After the meeting, he said board members are leaving the decision where it is because "there's nudity that's not necessary."
The book depicts the Holocaust during World War II, with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews. It's told through the eyes of the author's father, and the suicide of the author's mother in a bathtub is depicted. Her body is shown nude. Cochran also noted the word "b----" is shown in the same scene.
The group that put on a demonstration before the meeting — McMinn County Neighbors — seemed disappointed but not very surprised. Group member Sara Denny, one of the four speakers who called for a reversal of the "Maus" vote, said she's hanging on to hope the board will reconsider.
"I'm still hopeful the board comes back and considers adding it to the agenda in March," Denny said. "I'm not sure I'm coming away from this thinking that will happen, but I still have hope that it will."
Another member of the group, Stephen Dick, said after the meeting he was disturbed by the attorney's remarks about board policy.
"Why do you have a policy if the board doesn't even have to follow it?" Dick said. "It's kind of Orwellian."
Among the group speaking out front of the McMinn County Center for Educational Excellence were two students, Ruby Morgan of McMinn Central High School and Emma Stratton of McMinn County High School.
"When the story broke about the school board banning 'Maus,' I was shocked," Morgan said. "I believe I speak for a lot of people in the community when I say I didn't and still don't understand their decision."
She said she was impressed by the way the community banded together to speak out against the removal of the book.
"I'm ashamed to live in a county where the school board has no respect or regard for history," Stratton said. She called for an apology from the board to the community, the author and his family.
Kathryn "Katie" Brady, librarian and school board candidate, said her first book containing sensitive content was "To Kill A Mockingbird," which she said contained repeated uses of the "N" word, profanity and an accusation of rape, but her teacher and curriculum put it all in context.
"At no point during the reading of this book did I think that the book's use of profanity would excuse me to use that horrible language," Brady said. "None of us in the class did. That was, in part, due to the wonderful Mrs. Miller, our ELA [English language arts] teacher, who helped us understand how the vicious language in the book was used to add to its important message."
The librarian at the private Methodist university in town echoed her sentiments.
"Serious issues such as the removal of instructional materials should be discussed in an intentional and stately manner," Tennessee Wesleyan University librarian Alex Sharp said. "Issues such as these should never be leapt into with such little consideration or foresight."
Group member James "Eddie" Cockrum, who is Jewish, attended local schools and is running for county commission. He said he was disappointed with the board's move.
"On Jan. 26, I woke up to a headline from the BBC a friend in London had sent me," he said. "It was unconscionable to think that this was happening in my backyard."
He took issue with the board's objection to language and nudity in the book while not mentioning the swastikas.
The firestorm erupting in response to the vote resulted in soaring sales of "Maus" as many people flocked to read Spiegelman's story across the nation and world.
The school board has not responded to a Times Free Press request for a copy of a complaint or other documentation explaining what led to the discussion and vote Jan. 10 to remove the book. As of Thursday, nine business days had passed since the Jan. 28 request, and state law requires a response in seven business days or the delay could be viewed as a violation of the state's Open Records Act, according to state officials and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sent its own open records request Thursday seeking information about the board's decision on Maus.
"Students have a right to learn and receive an accurate, inclusive and complete education, free from censorship — even if that education includes ideas that some may find uncomfortable," Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, said in a statement issued Thursday. "Studies show that equitable education can increase greater cultural understanding and awareness, helping to build empathy, affirm diversity and foster greater connection between all students — all things we need today more than ever."
The First Amendment protects students' right to receive information and ideas, ALCU officials said in the statement. While school districts and school boards have discretion in choosing the curriculum and materials offered on a school's campus, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that that discretion must be exercised in keeping with the First Amendment, the statement said. School districts' curricular choices must be related to a legitimate government purpose.
"The McMinn County school board's disturbing decision to censor 'Maus' flies in the face of academic freedom," Stella Yarbrough, ACLU-TN staff attorney, said in the statement. "We join with McMinn County community members in urging the school board to reconsider their decision and rescind this ban."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.