A review committee tasked with deciding whether Harper Lee’s classic novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” should continue being taught to ninth-graders in the Monona Grove School District has decided to keep the book in the classroom.
In a 4-1 vote, the committee rejected the request from Cottage Grove parents Tujama and Jeannine Kameeta, whose son is in ninth grade, to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about racism in a small Southern town in the 1930s from Monona Grove High School’s freshman English curriculum because they believe the book is offensive.
Heavily peppered with racial slurs and featuring a white lawyer trying to exonerate a poor black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Harper’s book subjects students of color required to read it to racial insult, the Kameetas said, while its white-savior motif portrays black characters “as mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own exploitation and oppression.”
A more modern novel could be chosen that deals with the same racial issues in a more contemporary way, rather than one “reinforcing the systemic racism embedded in the school culture and society,” the Kameetas said.
Committee members received the complaint Jan. 30 and then spent two weeks reading the book and other supplied material before reconvening to make a decision, said Lisa Heipp, director of instruction for the district.
“The (members) discussed at length their thoughts, their questions and their concerns regarding (the book) as required reading,” Heipp said in a statement. “The committee appropriately kept its discussion focused on the book itself, its merits and flaws, and the pros and cons of having it as part of the curriculum.”
And while members decided that the book, published in 1960, can continue to be taught, they didn’t say it had to be, Heipp said.
“The committee recommended MGHS English teachers carefully consider (the book’s) place in the curriculum, the context in which it’s taught, other equivalent options or other ways to use the book that might include using (it) as a choice rather than as a required text,” Heipp said.
The committee, by its decision, also agreed to support “the professionalism of teachers and the need to involve teachers in instructional materials decisions,” Heipp said.
Superintendent Dan Olson also praised the decision.
“It was very well thought-out, and it did encourage our English department to consider this and other books,” he said. “I think any time we have this dialogue, it’s good. We should be always re-evaluating what we’re doing.”
Olson said the committee also made a good case for keeping the novel, finding it to be a worthy work for instruction in history and literature, evoking strong emotions while providing students with an opportunity to discuss difficult topics in a safe classroom atmosphere.
“Our English teachers are very thoughtful,” Olson said. “They’re not just teaching the book because they always have. They use it where it fits in the curriculum, and they’ll continue to do so.” School Board president Jenifer Smith has said the district receives requests to substitute books different from district-required material for individual students not infrequently, with suitable alternative material routinely provided “that still accomplishes the learning goal.” But she could not recall the district removing a book from the curriculum for all students at one family’s request.
The Kameetas’ son is being provided an alternative text to use in the class, Olson said. The Kameetas have the option to appeal the committee’s decision to the School Board, but so far they have not done that, Olson said.
James Kamoku, associate principal at the district’s Glacial Drumlin Middle School, voted against the decision. He could not be reached for comment Thursday. The Kameetas did not respond to requests for comment.