Character education: Complaint about “The Kite Runner” raises First Amendment issues

A recent flap over A.C. Reynolds High School students studying The Kite Runner has raised significant First Amendment concerns.

This spring, a 10th-grade honors English class was supposed to be studying Khaled Husseini’s acclaimed novel about two boys from different social classes growing up in 1970s Afghanistan. On April 27, teacher Brooke Bowman sent a letter to parents explaining the value of the 2003 best-seller as a teaching tool while warning of its mature content.

“A key scene, critical to the plot, involves the rape of one of the principal characters,” the letter stated. “Students may choose to skip this scene if they wish. In addition, there is some profanity.”

In the scene in question, a servant boy is beaten and sexually assaulted by an older boy from a wealthier family.

The letter concluded: “However, if you would prefer your child not read this novel, please sign below. We will come up with a comparable alternative.”

Parent Lisa Baldwin, whose son is in the class, requested a meeting with Bowman. Also in attendance were Reynolds High Principal Doris Sellers and Eric Grant, language arts specialist for the Buncombe County Schools. Baldwin says they immediately gave her a form she could file to register her objection with the school.

Lisa Baldwin
Lisa Baldwin

In an email to Xpress, the self-described “conservative government watchdog” cited state law requiring local boards of education to include “character education” in the curriculum. She also said schools must teach sex education from an abstinence-only perspective.

The law in question, G.S. 155C-81, instructs local school boards to implement, with community input, character education that addresses eight specific traits: courage, good judgment, integrity, kindness, perseverance, respect, responsibility and self-discipline. Baldwin said the main character’s actions violate those principles, noting that “Amir, the protagonist, witnesses the rape of his friend and is plagued with lifetime guilt over running away from the scene rather than having the courage, good judgment, integrity, kindness, perseverance, respect, responsibility and self-discipline needed to help his friend.”

But while the law does call for teaching abstinence as “the expected standard for all school-age children” and “the only certain means of avoiding out-of-wedlock pregnancy,” it also requires schools to teach “the effectiveness and safety of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods,” specifying that “Information conveyed during the instruction shall be objective and based upon scientific research that is peer reviewed and accepted by professionals and credentialed experts in the field of sexual health education.”

And in any case, these requirements pertain to “a reproductive health and safety education program commencing in the seventh grade,” not a 10th-grade honors English class.

At press time, the complaint was still making its way through the appeals process. But in the meantime, students in the class were barred from studying the novel, raising concerns about violating their First Amendment rights.

“According to the Supreme Court,” notes Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, “books can’t be removed just because you disagree with their philosophy.”

“Perverse and violent”

In her email, Baldwin wrote, “To then read novels with explicit sexual content, particularly that which is perverse and violent (child sexual assault), is hypocrisy.”

And in a May 15 opinion piece published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Baldwin questioned the effectiveness of opt-out forms like the one included in Bowman’s letter, noting that a teacher might assume consent on the part of a parent who never actually saw the letter. Offensive material, she maintained, should instead require an opt-in form or permission slip signed before the student is exposed to the content.

The “homosexual rape scene” in The Kite Runner, said Baldwin, might trigger painful memories in children, adding that according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 20 percent of girls and 5 percent of boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Some colleges, she pointed out, place “trigger warnings” at the top of their syllabuses concerning items that deal with sensitive topics, and at least one has created a “safe space” students can retreat to when a controversial topic becomes too overwhelming.

“Is the teacher qualified to handle potential psychological issues?” asked Baldwin.

Baldwin also wrote that she had “tried to offer a compromise,” suggesting that the class instead read the World War I classic All Quiet on the Western Front along with appropriate excerpts from The Kite Runner, “but the principal rejected it.”

Committee upholds the book’s use

On April 29, Baldwin filed a formal complaint regarding the use of The Kite Runner as a supplementary text.

Buncombe County Schools Policy No. 3210 describes the process school officials must follow in such situations. It also affirms a parent’s right, under federal law, to inspect all instructional materials.

In accordance with that procedure, the administration first addressed the complaint strictly in the context of the school to which it pertained.

The case went to Reynolds High’s Media and Technology Advisory Committee, consisting of two media coordinators, an assistant principal, a parent representative and four other faculty members from different departments. In such cases, the committee is charged with assessing the book’s qualities, weighing its merits and weaknesses, determining whether it’s suitable for classroom use, and issuing a written report explaining its decision within 10 school days of a complaint’s being filed.

In a May 13 press release, the school system announced that the committee had found “no viable reason to exclude” The Kite Runner from the curriculum, saying the book “possesses sufficient literary, thematic and aesthetic traits to warrant its inclusion for study at teacher discretion.” The release also noted that “The Kite Runner has been on the Buncombe County Schools High School Approved Reading List for years. This is the first documented parent objection to this text.”

After the committee issues a ruling, complainants have 10 school days to appeal the decision, at which point the Community Committee reviews the case and prepares a written report to the county school board. The board then has 30 days to issue its final ruling.

Baldwin, herself a former school board member, took the full allotted time to consider her options before appealing on May 28. At one point, she asked Grant whether she would be able to attend the school board’s meeting and address the group. She hadn’t been allowed to do that with the Media and Technology Advisory Committee because it’s not considered a public body under state law.

First Amendment issues

But even the school board’s final ruling might not be the end of the matter, notes Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“If the school board makes a decision that is unconstitutional,” she explains, “and affects the rights of the students to read the information and have access to these materials — which is part of the First Amendment — a student or a parent can then sue the district for infringing upon these rights. And that has happened many times.”

Martin of the N.C. Press Association cites a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case — Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico — in which the school board asserted its right to remove certain books from the library, including Slaughterhouse-Five, Go Ask Alice and Down These Mean Streets, on the basis that they were, among other things, “just plain filthy.”

The court ruled against the school board, establishing limits on how and why books could be kept from students. The court did acknowledge, however, that there can be valid reasons for removal, such as if the material is pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable. Martin also notes that the ruling applied only to students’ ability to gain access to a book, not to its use in the curriculum.

Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, says restricting a book from the classroom denies students the chance to discuss it as a group and explore the ideas it presents with a teacher’s guidance.

“Removing a book from the library,” he continues, “is doubtlessly a greater infringement on the First Amendment, because you are potentially really making it impossible, or much more difficult, for a student to access a work of literature. But the First Amendment and courts in general have, over a long period of time, frowned upon and been very skeptical about decisions that limit access to literature and ideas based on the content or viewpoint of the literature in question and the ideas related.”

School policy questioned

In accordance with system policy, The Kite Runner remained available in the school library. And in response to the controversy, a group of students actually formed a book club to read and discuss the novel, notes Donald Porter, communications director for the Buncombe County Schools.

But the book had to be barred from classroom use until a final decision was made. And because the school year would be over before the process could play out, the class read All Quiet on the Western Front, the alternative text suggested by Baldwin, instead. So whichever way the matter is eventually resolved, this year’s 10th-grade honors English class did not get to study The Kite Runner.

And in that sense, says Pekoll, the damage has already been done. Any policy that allows a single complaint to temporarily remove a book from the classroom without review, she asserts, is automatically prejudiced against the text in question.

“Usually, when we talk about best practices and advice for policies,” Pekoll explains, “we say that the book should remain in the classroom — in the curriculum, in circulation — until after a full evaluation is completed.”

John Parker, digital learning specialist for the Buncombe County Schools, says the policy would require the same action regardless of the nature of the objections: Once a complaint is filed, the book must be suspended from use until a decision is rendered.

Porter, meanwhile, relayed a written statement from Associate Superintendent Susanne Swanger that highlights another potential pitfall of the policy.

“In its current form,” noted Swanger, “this process could be used again and again to effectively keep any text from being used — which is clearly outside of the spirit of the policy. It is the practice of our board to review and adjust policies as necessary, and I would expect future conversations regarding this policy.”


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13 thoughts on “Character education: Complaint about “The Kite Runner” raises First Amendment issues

  1. Big Al

    Does this mean I get to sue the public school system for traumatizing me with visions of a gay pedophile teacher stroking Holden’s hair in “Catcher in the Rye”?

    Seriously, with all the sex and violence on cable TV, the movies and “Grand Theft Auto” video games (you know, the one with niggas, pimps, hoes and gats), do you really think a child rape scene is something that your supposedly virtuous and virginal high school seniors cannot take into context? Especially considering that the event is a critical moment leading to the book’s main point about personal redemption.

    It is the parents who need to “grow up” here, the kids are already way past you.

    • bsummers

      You mean “parent”. Singular. Lisa Baldwin, self-appointed deciderer of what all 10th grade English students should be allowed to study. She could have simply requested that her own child read the offered alternative, but instead wanted no one to read The Kite Runner.

      Crazy thing is, 10 years ago, this book was cited by none other than First Lady Laura Bush as being “really great”.

      If it’s good enough for Laura Frikkin’ Bush to recommend it to the nation to read, it’s good enough for 10th grade English class, Lisa.

      • NFB

        Yeah, but that’s all nuance and while I don’t know Mrs. Bladwin personally at all nothing I have ever seen or heard from her suggest she does nuance at all. It is a black and white world for her.

        Besides, Laura Bush also loved the Harry Potter books, so she’s pretty much outed herself as an evil devil worshiper, right?

  2. Quentin Poulsen

    War time propaganda scriped for Hollywood. Is that what literature has come to?

  3. Gene Loflin

    It is disappointing that in this day we still fear ideas to the extent that book banning (or attempted book banning) continues. How can we have an educated citizenry if we do not allow individuals learn from varied viewpoints? Would character education not include learning from examples of individuals demonstrating a lack of character? In the article, Ms. Baldwin mentions that “Some colleges,…, place “trigger warnings” at the top of their syllabuses (College personnel would use the term syllabi.)…” I have a great many years of experience in higher education and have never seen such “warnings.” I can’t say that some faculty at some colleges don’t include such warnings, but the practice in higher education would be unusual. The goal of higher education is to provide students with a great many points of view. Limiting a faculty member’s ability to explore topics because they are controversial would be a violation of Academic Freedom. The Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges requires that all accredited institutions protect academic freedom. Well, Ms. Baldwin has accomplished one thing – more people will read The Kite Runner as a result of this publicity.

  4. bsummers

    The great American classic To Kill a Mockingbird is to this day still one of the most challenged books in our country. Personally, I can’t imagine not having read it, watched the movie version, and discussed it in school. But people like Ms. Baldwin have been making the same types of arguments for 50 years that To Kill a Mockingbird is inappropriate even for high school aged children.

    “Perhaps the first major incident surrounding the book was in Hanover, Virginia, in 1966 when a parent protested that the use of rape as a plot device was immoral. Several examples of letters to local newspapers- which ranged from amusement to fury- expressed mostly outrage over the depictions of rape. Upon learning that school administrators were holding hearings regarding the book’s appropriateness for the classroom, Harper Lee sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of “the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.””

    I share Harper Lee’s disgust over this issue, with the added layer of disappointment that a full half-century later, some people have still not evolved.

    • NFB

      Interesting. The use of rape as a plot device is “immoral,” but a system that allows a man clearly innocent of committing that rape be convicted of it solely because his race as a plot device is just fine and dandy.

  5. Scott

    Interesting that Ms. Baldwin could have just gotten her precious little child exempt from the book and let other parents do as they seem fit. Instead, she has to exert her beliefs on everyone else. Don’t want your special little guy to read the book? Sign the damn form and let the other parents decide. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she hasn’t actually read the book. I haven’t, but now I will. If this were my child though, I would and then make a decision. She’ll likely keep her head buried in the sand.
    Also, that she’s all about “abstinence only” sex ed. Yeah, because that works out so well. Ms. Baldwin, I have Bristol Palin on line one for you.

  6. Alan Ditmore

    Ms Baldwin has done some good work in the past against budgetary waste and cronyism in the Buncombe Schools. I am very dissapointed that she has sunk to this censorship through delay. I had hoped for better from her.

  7. Carol Dial

    As an English teacher and school media specialist, I see both sides of this issue. First, using literary works like To Kill A Mockingbird and the Bible as examples of other books like this one is a faulty comparison. Those books did not describe sex or rape in graphic, specific detail as this book did. That is one of the many differences between literature and just fiction. As for The Catcher in the Rye, I have never considered It to be a work of literary merit, despite all opinions to the contrary. Second, the book in questionmay well be an excellent book worthy of reading. But worthy of teaching to a group of adolescents? I doubt it. Try teaching The Scarlet Letter instead. Or find a comparable work in which the rape and sex are not graphically depicted. Second, using what students see in movies, TV , and videos is not justification for repeating the travesty of graphic depictions to which our students are exposed daily. The goal should be to counter such exposure with works that present the theme and explore it without such graphic detail. I question a teacher or a school which would allow such a substitution to be taught.

    Second, in regard to the attempt at censureship by the parent, I agree -to a point -that she does not have the right to keep all students from reading the book. What should be remembered is that school libraries are not PUBLIC libraries, open to all segments of the population. They are , by definition, SPECIAL libraries, which serve a special segment of the population. Some works can be excluded from the library because they are not appropriate for that specific segment of the population. That being said, the book, while not appropriate to be taught in a classroom, certainly should belongs in the school library. Parents who want to restrict their child’s private reading ( never a good idea in my opinion unless the material is pornograhic) should not have the power to ban everyone from reading it. This goes for a classroom as well. She had an option, but chose not to use it. This is wrong and should not be tolerated.

    If the book is questioned, the system is following correct procedure– the same procedure that allows Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and countless other banned books to remain available. When books are banned or burned to conform to one point of view, we lose out freedom to learn. That sets a dangerous precedent.

  8. Mary

    Having been around awhile, I can say that our culture as a whole has become coarsened and crude since the activists opposing the Viet Nam War showed that the people have a voice and are able to vigorously oppose the people who run the nation. Once they broke down the social rules and expectations that my generation remembers, life in the USA became a free-for-all. We went from censorship in film and literature to anything goes, no matter how unspeakable and ugly, both in the arts ad in real life.

    Now, the censors are back and the people who think that bad things don’t happen if no one discusses them, or bad things happen only to those who “deserve” them, are on the ascendency once again. Helicopter parents are trying to helicopter the whole society.

    Perhaps Ms. Baldwin sees the degeneracy of our culture as harmful and wants to protect our young people from reading about activities that take place in our own communities, schools, and even, sadly, our homes. I can see her point. Rape, incest, and violence are not welcome in our living rooms and study halls (yet work pretty well for the torturers of those unfortunates we can pretend don’t exist as they are turned into mental cases and physically pushed to the brink of death in Gitmo and in our prison system).

    The brain is not fully developed until about age 26. Which makes it seem all the more ridiculous that children who are not mature enough to read about evil are allowed to become child soldiers and fight and die for the warrior class in congress, they are allowed to have their immature brains assaulted by political candidates and are allowed and expected to vote …and be responsible about how they cast their votes, in dog-eat-dog political environment. They are allowed, and encouraged, to engage in sports that can lead to massive brain injury and permanent disability and sometimes suicide. They are allowed to participate in misogyny and violence in internet “games,” with no one to intervene. Teachers and schools do their best to teach abstinence (like shoveling Niagara Falls back up the hill with a sieve—–given the biological imperative to reproduce) . Teachers try to model proper speech–useless in some areas of the country—and good manners, while families ignore both. (One day I will carry a cane with me and trip up the next youngster who pushes in front of me instead of showing proper respect for me and all adults by not cutting across my path).

    Literature has a lot to answer for. I read this novel some time ago, and since I’m an adult have not let its contents fester in my head. I also read Jan Karon novels. But this woman knows well her innocent child, whom she is protecting from the unspeakable evil of the written word, while, no doubt, ignoring real evils of her time and place in history. I suspect he hears about the same or worse behaviour on the school bus or athletic field, but it’s a lot easier for mommy to blame literature, writers, teachers, administrators, and the culture, rather than ask to take part in the classroom discussion, where she could share her wisdom with the students. Her heart may be in the right place, but her head appears to be judgmental and overbearing. Traits that wise people eventually put aside.

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