Improve Opting Out

Several of our goals have grown out of difficult situations faced by families attempting to “opt out” of a book, as they have been met with resistance, isolation, and other unreasonable consequences. Some students were told their grades would suffer if they changed books. Students have also been subject to tests covering the materials they have opted out of, and received failing grades as a result. Additionally, when a request for an alternate book was accommodated, at times teachers did not provide an alternate choice that established the same course objective and afforded the student an equal opportunity to learn.

Stories of HPISD families…

Story Number One

I appreciate the administration providing alternatives….However, they are not without unreasonable consequences.  My child was offered an alternate book only when we shared a concern.  The option was to sit in the hall for six weeks and come in after school to discuss with another student reading the same material.  The teacher offered no assistance whatsoever to accommodate her choice.

Story Number Two

When my son was a freshman, he brought home a permission slip for parental signature to allow him to read a book from the Young Adult Fiction genre for his ROR- required outside reading.  Being familiar with this genre, I knew I did not want him to read one of these books, so I did not sign the permission slip.

That seemed straightforward; I expected him to be able to opt out of reading any of the books on the list and read an alternative. Simple enough, right? Wrong! 

The teacher seemed surprised by our non-compliance;  my son said, “Mom, you know I’m the only kid who can’t read one  of the books, my teacher told me that.”

Opting out and requesting an alternative was neither easy nor straightforward. I had to enlist the help of my brother, a teacher in another district. He walked me through the Texas Education Code and reassured me of my parental rights.  After much discussion, the teacher and I agreed on an alternative.

However, the agreement came with a warning: my son would miss out on group discussions and his grade might suffer. The consequences did not play out, but the threatened retribution felt as punitive as if it had.  I told my son not to worry about the grades – learning to stand-alone for principles was an excellent, though difficult, lesson.  It was unfortunate that this particular lesson in courage and standing strong was in his freshman Pre-AP English class, standing up to his teacher.

Story Number Three

(Dear Teacher),

There are a number of aspects of the story that trouble me, particularly the explicit and vulgar content. I will repeat what I stated in my previous email:  I do not believe that these students cannot learn apart from this type of material.  Maybe it could be a goal that we elevate their reading material to the morals we expect them to adhere to.  Requiring students to read material with underage drinking and cussing slowly but surely increases the idea that these activities are normal.  (My daughter) mentioned that you stated this author writes about normal everyday life.  In our household, these activities are not normal.  I do not want (my daughter’s) conscience eroded.  Use of excessive profanity and “passionate” kissing between parent and child would be considered R rated in a movie theater.  (My daughter) spoke to other students in this class and they all had the same interpretation, which proves that this reading material is too mature for them if that was not the author’s intention.  However, given the use of the author’s language, even my wife and I believe he intended to evoke these thoughts. Also, I would expect that this type of profanity is not allowed in school hallways.  However, assigning reading material with this language condones it.  Let’s not confuse being “open-minded” with accepting wrong and immoral ideas.

I realize by your response that you are not going to change what you assign my child to read, but I would ask that you take into account my concerns as her parent and protector about language and age appropriateness.  There is a huge problem with drinking, cussing, and sexual immorality at HPHS and reading this type of material only normalizes these activities and makes them worse.  Neither of the public high schools that I or my wife attended would have allowed this story to be assigned in a classroom.  It’s very sad to see how low morals can go in just a single generation.

Story Number Four

When I became aware of the sexually explicit, vulgar and graphically violent literature in the HPISD curriculum, I had to apologize to my teenagers for having “fallen asleep at the wheel” concerning their required reading.  In the past, I have read their books either before or simultaneously with them. Unfortunately for my children, I stopped.   I am saddened that the school district that I attended no longer attempts to maintain a higher standard.

As you are aware, it is quite a battle to be vigilant about what children are exposed to at too early an age due to the technology at their disposal.   However, it is shocking to learn that I also need to protect my children from the material they are exposed to in reading assignments given by our teachers in middle school and high school.    There is so much good literature that allows young minds to grow and learn.

When I came home from the school board meeting on September 9, 2014, and apologized to my children, they told me that they were disgusted by material they had read and that they could not imagine why parents and teachers thought this was appropriate when it was often against what they had been taught in our home.   They assumed that this is just the way HP wants everyone to live and think.

I want to go on the record that I do not want our community to sink to the morals and standards that are set in some of the books assigned to our students/who are children needing direction, insight and clarity.   And, I do not want my children thinking or being told that I knowingly consented to their reading this content.

Story Number Five

I first became aware of the required reading issue at HPHS when our oldest child was a freshman at HPHS in 2008.  My son came home with a book that I casually opened to read a couple of pages. I was shocked at what I read. The page I happened to read was about a boy and a prostitute and their sexual relationship. I couldn’t believe this is what his teacher had assigned to him.

The book is full of sexually explicit content that detailed body parts and describes sexual games. In short, it was not age appropriate. I emailed the teacher the next morning asking for a different book. When I asked why she thought this book, that my husband and I found so offensive, was on the required reading list for freshman students, her reply was that they felt like the Pre-AP students could handle it. So because 14 year olds are put in a Pre-AP class, they can handle more sexually explicit information in their minds?

My husband made the point that his upper level courses in college didn’t even contain this graphic information. The irony is that even though my son did not read this book, he still sat in class while his classmates openly discussed the book in detail. In the end, our son was still exposed to this graphic sexual content against our wishes.

Story Number Six

Two years ago when two of our sons enrolled at HPHS, we were new to the school and learning the ropes.  Early in the first semester, our sophomore son came home and said, “Mom and Dad, I heard there is some inappropriate stuff in this book I have to read. What should I do?

Thankful for the maturity he displayed in coming to us, we said we would absolutely check it out.  So, my husband began his journey through the book – required reading for our son’s Pre-AP sophomore English class. He was taken aback by the material that was due the next day – not the amount, but the graphic sexual content. Honestly, we were not anticipating a problem like this at HPHS, so we had not planned ahead.

My husband created an edited copy for our son’s use. He filled in the gaps of the storyline with nuanced and appropriate language. He also engaged in meaningful conversations with our son about why he did not want him to read those excerpts.

This “fun read” as described by the teacher, was full of graphic and vulgar sexual references. Our son did not want to tell his teacher that his dad edited the book (she was known to call students out and pick on them in class). To our son, the best strategy was to “lay low” and blend in so that she would not call him out or mock him.  He was even afraid she might have him read the inappropriate passages out loud in class if she found out.  None of these fears came to fruition, but I remember the stress and anxiety he felt about possibly getting caught.  The stress we felt to protect our child and preserve our family’s values was enormous.

Story Number Seven

September 8, 2013 I found my daughter working on a required reading assignment in our dining room. I noticed a bottle of white-out next to her. I asked her why she had white-out while reading and annotating her book. She told me she was removing words she never wanted to see again in case she needed to re-read a passage. A little alarmed, I picked the book up. My daughter protested, “Don’t blame me, mom. I didn’t choose this. We have to read this book!”

Due to her response, I opened the book and began reading it myself. I was flabbergasted at the filthy language as I flipped from page to page.   I told her to start another subject.

I started on page one and read about 3/4 of the book that evening. Early in the book was a description of sex between a man and his girlfriend. The description was not as graphic as a later scene, but completely inappropriate for any high school student to be required or suggested to read. This book contains every foul word I have ever heard in my entire life. Repeated many times over.

I still have not wrapped my mind around why the author thought it necessary to include a scene of the main character’s dog raping all of the young daughter’s stuffed animals!

By the time I reached the chapter that contained an enticing, extremely sexually graphic scene of a young naked teenage girl trying to seduce her married relative by removing his clothing, my blood was boiling. I ripped that entire chapter out of the book and proceeded to email her teacher the following email which I sent the next day:

Opting Out Email — Inbox
Concerned Parent
To: teacher@email.com
Sep 9, 2013 10:33am

Details

Dear ***********,Our daughter, ***********, is in your 7th period class.  This weekend we became aware of the book she has been assigned to read.  Last night I read through about 75% of the book before needing to go to bed.  We would like to respectfully request that ***** be allowed to read an alternate book.  We have always desired our children to read good quality books with rich language.  One would never hear any of the myriad bad words from that book in our home, nor would we ever allow a movie or TV show to come on in our home which portrays scenes similar to that from the book. Although we know that horrible things like attempted rape and false accusations do occur in society, we cannot in good conscience allow ***** to fill her mind with explicit descriptions of those acts.We await your reply.Thank you

At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, I signed a permission slip for my daughter to read well-known classics and non-fiction books. I thought it odd to sign such a consent form, since who could object to that? It made no mention whatsoever of any potentially explicit material.

My husband and I met with (the teacher) the following day. She seemed very kind and gracious. She told me that all the children loved the book and cried at the end when the dog dies. She also told me she had no idea what our objection to the book was, but did not think we would have any objections to any of the other literature used in the 10th grade. My husband made the point that no one in the school or working business community could get away with using the kind of language which filled the book and wanted to know why they are teaching the children that cursing is a normal way of everyday speech. We received no answer to that.

We repeatedly asked why this sort of book was being read. We were told that these pre-AP students needed something fun to read so they will learn to love reading. (An aside: University Park, according to the latest US Census has one of the most highly educated group of citizens in Texas. If our pre-AP English students need this sort of garbage, filled with filth, yet written at a 3rd grade reading level to help them learn to love to read, then there is another problem which needs to be addressed in the elementary and middle schools.)

By the end of the meeting, (the teacher) assured us that the objectionable chapter would never be discussed in class. I had already used white-out on every nasty word in the book, so it was decided that our daughter would finish the book instead of starting over with a much longer, better book and removed from the classroom. The teacher told us she would have the head of the English department contact us over our concerns, but that never happened.

The very next quiz given in that class heavily tested over the sexually explicit chapter. When the quizzes were returned, the teacher’s aide plopped her quiz on her desk and loudly exclaimed, “Some of us had a very innocent interpretation of this chapter!” She picked up her quiz and saw that she had received a D! (Our daughter works very hard, and has a GPA that can attest to her diligence.)

When we found out what had happened after being reassured that “that” chapter would never be discussed and then testing over the same, we lost all confidence in the English department. Even though the teacher had told us the other books read in 10th grade would not have objectionable content, we could no longer trust that was true after being deceived about the classroom covering the sexually graphic chapter in this book.

We have four children and are not able to read every book each of our children is assigned, to see if it is deserving of being read. So, we made the difficult decision to remove our daughter from Highland Park High School mid-year and place her in private school.