Written by By Jeremy Diamond, for CNN
Since the 1980s, a number of textbooks have been banished from the backpacks of elementary school children in Fairfax County, Virginia, a leafy suburb of Washington, D.C.
The textbooks in question are considered hard to stomach by the school district’s many parents, who are concerned with their graphic descriptions of incest, rape and of sexual domination.
They say the books, which are re-published from national publisher William Morrow , do not help to teach respect for women and for morality, and have the potential to encourage, excuse or glorify other negative behaviours that might otherwise go unnoticed.
“Clearly these books are inappropriate for school-age children,” said Rajiv Jayapal, a spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools, during a Tuesday press conference. “As a society, we have to take care of children so they grow up to be responsible adults.”
The boundaries of censorship
The controversy has been brewing for some time, particularly since the district decided in early 2010 to adopt national guidelines for determining “abhorrent material” in its textbooks. The guidelines, issued by the Pew Research Center, outlaw any and all explicit or graphic sexual or violent content.
“Any book that contains depictions of explicit sexual activity, real or fantasy, is banned,” wrote Jayapal. “All books that contain graphic depictions of physical harm to a person are banned. Any book that contains depiction of sex between two or more children, or depicts or describes physical or sexual abuse, is banned.”
Even though the guidelines prohibit any depiction of sexual abuse, such as masturbation, Jayapal said the school district cannot allow pictures of anal sex or other adult themes to appear next to, say, stories about pregnancy or developmental milestones.
Disapproval not just about sexual issues
But while the district’s critics point to The Revised Child Development Course, a textbook that discusses the area of sexuality, Jayapal noted the revised book contains numerous other topics that may be objectionable.
For example, parent Michael Heiner, who lives in Fairfax, highlighted the section on sexuality that includes a list of extremely graphic illustrations of incestuous behavior.
“In addition to the prevalence of such material, it’s misleading to use the term sexual development when addressing child sex,” Heiner wrote in a March column for The Washington Post .
The Overlooked, another textbook, covers a very different, more difficult subject, which parents found offensive.
One chapter titled, “What? So Why?” discusses the phenomenon of sexual torture, including sentencing children to sexual pain.
“Parents had a problem with that in a society where children have the right to be raised to respect themselves and others,” said Jayapal.
The district explains
Despite all the controversy surrounding its policy, the school district has gotten along without the printed materials for some time, Jayapal said. About 90% of the books that were deemed inappropriate — about 200 in all — are held in a central collection for students to buy at school, he said.
“A message was sent to parents that you can read these books at home; we can teach these words in the classroom; but if you buy these books for your child, it will be a school-issued book,” said Jayapal.
Some parents, though, are seeking the destruction of all of the elementary school textbooks that fall under the district’s policy.
“If they really believe that this material cannot impact our children, they can pursue with legal action whatever resolution they want, in court,” Heiner said.