In Burbank Schools, a Debate Over Banning Books on How to Teach Anti-Racism (2023)

During a virtual meeting on September 9, middle and high school English teachers at theunified burbankThe school district received somewhat surprising news: Until further notice, they will not be allowed to teach some of the books in their curriculum.

Five novels had been challenged at Burbank: Harper Lee's"Kill a Mockingbird', 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain, 'by John Steinbeck'of mice and men“, Theodore Taylors „Tit felland the Newbery Medal-winning youth classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

The challenges came from four parents (three of them black) over alleged potential harm to the approximately 400 black students in the public school district. All but "Huckleberry Finn" must be read in BUSD.


The ongoing case has drawn the attention of free speech organizations across the country, who denounce it as the latest act of school censorship. The charge against these books, racism, has been made in the past, but unlike previous fights across the country, this one is heavily imbued with an atmosphere of urgent reckoning, as both opponents and supporters of the novels reclaim the mantle of anti-racism. .

The district debate comes after a summer of mass protests calling for an end to the unfair treatment of black people. As a result, many institutions and school districts like BUSD scrutinize themselves, their policies, curricula, and practices, and in many cases issue anti-racist statements. And while the US book ban has a long history, the situation in Burbank - once acity ​​at sunsetthat the racial segregation practiced - is newly complicated.

In short, it is a discussion about what free speech means and who is heard. More specifically, it is about what to teach the approximately 15,200 students enrolled in the district, who are 47.2% White, 34.5% Latino, 9.2% Asian, and 2.6% Black, and how Burbank can move forward boldly but sensitively.


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And at its root it springs from a painful personal history. Destiny Helligar, now 15 and in high school, recently told her mother about an incident that happened when she was a student.David Starr Jordan High School.According to Destiny's mother, Carmenita Helligar, a white student approached Destiny in math class with a racist taunt, including the N-word she learned while reading "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

On another occasion, Helligar added, another boy approached Destiny and other students and said, "My family used to be yours, and now I want a dollar a week from each of you." she that she read it in class-also in "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry". Helligar believed that the director dismissed the incident.

“My daughter was literally traumatized,” Helligar said. "These books are troublesome... You feel powerless because you can't even protect your son from the pain he's going through."

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Helligar is one of the parents who have come forward with complaints. But as the books were shelved and the review process progressed, a mixed group of faculty and students opposed the removal of the novels, arguing that their teaching was essential. A report from a 15-member review board to the superintendent is due November 13, but that will only be the beginning of a long debate, in Burbank and beyond.

In Burbank Schools, a Debate Over Banning Books on How to Teach Anti-Racism (2)

Destiny Helligar, right, and her mother, Carmenita Helligar. An incident at school prompted her mother to take action.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Essential history or obsolete fiction?

A week after teachers learned of the removal, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)sent a letterto BUSD and requested that the district allow the books to be taught while the challenges are reviewed. On October 14, PEN Americaposted a petitiondemands the same.

"[W]e believe that books...have great educational value and should be kept in the curriculum," reads an NCAC letter.

Books written by people of color or featuring people of color are "disproportionately likely to be banned," said James Tager, PEN's deputy director of free expression policy and research. "It's a decade-long trend that proponents and observers alike have seen."

NEW: PEN America is asking the Burbank Unified School District to lift the temporary ban on several race-related books in the United States and allow those books to be taught in Burbank classrooms. Sign our petition today:

– PEN America (@PENamerica)14. October 2020

Book bans have a long history in the United States. Such challenges are sometimes rooted in intolerance. Harriet Beecher-StowesUncle Tom's Cabinit is cited by many historians as the first nationally banned book. Published in 1852, it was banned by the Confederacy for its abolitionist agenda.

A century and a half later, Khaled Hosseini's best-seller The Kite Runner is publishedwas challengedamong other things, for allegedly promoting Islam and inciting terrorism.


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"Usually these book bans come from people who are concerned that books challenge the established order," said Alaina Morgan, an assistant professor of history at USC. That makes the situation in BUSD "new," she said.

"I think there's a very long history for black parents in these counties of dealing with microaggression ... and now they're seeing their children go through the same things in a supposedly more racially just society," Morgan said.

Although she believes that drop culture has a role to play in the debate, "I think there's a difference between the gut reaction that is drop culture: people say, 'Oh, they said something racist, they're [canceled] now ' - and what's going on here," he said.

None of the five disputed novels openly endorses racial segregation or bigotry. All have been flagged for words that we now find offensive. But parental objections aren't just related to language. They also worry about how these books represent black history and what lessons they might teach modern readers.

"The Cay" and "Huckleberry Finn" feature white boys learning the suffering and wisdom of older black men. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus plays Finch, a white lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. The story of the white savior reads very differently almost 60 years after it was published.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" may have prompted Helligar's complaint, but it's an outlier. Narrated by a young black woman who grew up in the South during the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era, it is the only novel on the list by a black author.

In particular, the BUSD reading list has not been revised for three decades. "For more than 30 years," Helligar said, "these books have been on this list. The real ban is that there are no other books with other voices that can be on it."

Nadra Ostrom, another African-American mother who filed a complaint, agrees that the perspective is in dire need of an update. “Blacks are portrayed primarily from the perspective of whites,” Ostrom said. "There's no counter-narrative to this black person tackling racism and a white person rescuing it."

And that, he said, does more harm than good. “Basically, the education that students receive is that racism is a thing of the past,” she added. "And that's not the conversation we should be having in 2020. ... Unless teachers are specifically trained to teach these texts through an anti-racist lens, they are likely to reinforce racism rather than diminish it."

Others believe that a change in perspective is not only feasible, but necessary, that books remain essential in shaping classroom discussions of contemporary racism. Rather than ban the books, they argue, the district should reevaluate how they are taught.

For a Burbank High School teacher who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, the Black Lives Matter protests only reinforce the relevance of these books.

"'To Kill a Mockingbird' was written 60 years ago and we read it with horror at the injustice and horror of a segregated society," he said. "It's set in the 1930s and we look at how things were then and how we feel like we've come a long way, but we can see the gross injustices that still exist."

Many district students agree. On October 22, Sungjoo Yoon, a sophomore at Burbank High School,started a petitionto stop what he called an "anti-racist book ban." As of November 11, more than 2,600 people had signed it. Some 80 students also sent personal statements of protest to county officials.

Yoon, 15, started the petition because he remembered the effect books had on him. "When I was younger, I didn't know much about race relations or anything about critical race theory," he said, "and when I read 'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,' that was my first impression, and it really moved me." . me.". He hopes the students can continue to have the "breakthrough moment" that he had.

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"There are people who have been actively harmed by some of these books in the past," Yoon admits. "I've been in classrooms where teachers, especially white teachers, wholeheartedly say the N-word without anyone caring, or have a single African-American student speak for the entire class. I think that's where the harm comes from."

Chloe Bauer remembers crying the first time she read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" in her seventh grade English class at John Muir High School.

Bauer, now 14, called the novel his first lesson in America's "bloody and cruel" past. When she heard that teachers were ordered to stop teaching the book, she felt "confused," "frustrated," and "sad." She thought of her sister, a sixth-year student at John Muir.

In Burbank Schools, a Debate Over Banning Books on How to Teach Anti-Racism (5)

Chloe Bauer and Sungjoo Yoon have both defended that the removal of the books is being considered, saying they learned valuable lessons about racism from them.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

So Bauer emailed Sharon Cuseo, Burbank's assistant superintendent for instructional services, describing her experience. She thought Cuseo's response was dismissive, so she went to the Board of Education.

During a September 17 school board meeting, Bauer spoke up: She said the novel taught her and her classmates just how "disgusting" name calling was. "This is an incredibly important lesson to learn at age 13 when seventh graders are exposed to music, television, movies and pop culture with mixed messages about the use of offensive language, particularly the N-word."

Helligar doesn't buy that. She believes the key message is that racism is an artifact of history. “You can read about racism while my children experience it. That's the privilege they have to walk."

She told the review board that the incidents she reported were themselves evidence that the books had failed in their mission: "You don't do well as an educational system if the people you raised haven't yet learned empathy."

Some black parents in the district see both sides of the argument.

Dawn Parker, an African-American fourth and seventh grade mom, feels sorry for the parents who have complained. "But I think our kids don't know now how [the N-word] came about, how it was used, its history. You hear it in rap music and you think it's okay to say it, and it's not. You need to know why and where it came from. ", said. You need to learn it in a "safe environment".

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A controversial process

The question of what exactly to do with the offending books in Burbank has not only divided the community, but also created frustration with the district's complaint handling procedures.

The Burbank process can be long and complicated and involves five stages consisting of complaints (formal and informal), an ad hoc committee, and multiple appeals. While it appears to be designed to ensure that parents are heard, the policy does not address the central issue of improving classroom practices.

Some parents and teachers were initially concerned about the superintendent's decision to suspend instruction in the books before a formal written complaint was filed. Since then, four official complaints have been filed. LowDistrict Policy AR 1312.2, "disputed material may remain in use pending a final decision", giving children the opportunity to opt out of reading.

Asked why the district immediately removed the books, BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill told The Times: "Given the nature of the complaint, the fact that we would have to ask black children to leave their class and give them an alternate task, I didn't think that was the smartest approach. I thought it would be best for us to work together and see if we can come up with a solution."


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The five books in question are currently in step four of the district's process. The review committee has until November 13 to make a recommendation to Hill, who will make a decision that can then be appealed to the Board of Education. The last meeting took place on November 4, but no consensus was reached.

"We are not going to take books out of our classrooms or schools," Hill said; They remain in libraries and on optional reading lists. "We looked at our reading lists and our top novels to determine: Are there any concerns with these books? Are these the best books?

While some teachers and parents believe the superintendent is acting in good faith, they are concerned about the process.

“It seems to have gone straight from an experience at one of the schools to a district-wide ban,” said a Burbank middle school teacher who asked not to be named. He and several colleagues felt left out of the review. "Many teachers were unaware of these concerns and did not have an opportunity to address their practices or ... respond until the decision was made," he said. He believes the superintendent "has not taken steps to involve a broader network of parents, students, and community members in this decision."

It is certainly easier to make yes or no decisions from the top down than to task an expanding school district with the difficult task of teaching old books in new times. As Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and the other novels return to the curriculum, the toughest challenge might be making sure students of all backgrounds can find what Bauer and Yoon did in these books.

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Why did Burbank ban books? ›

After parent complaints about the use of racist epithets in To Kill a Mockingbird; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Cay; Of Mice and Men; and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the Burbank (CA) Unified School District superintendent removed these titles from required classroom reading lists.

What books are banned in Burbank Public Schools? ›

In 2020, PEN America expressed great concern with your district's decision to restrict four books from being taught in classrooms: The Cay; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; To Kill a Mockingbird; and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

How does banning books affect schools? ›

Those who are affected the most by book banning are the students in the classroom. When books are banned or challenged, the footing of the curriculum becomes unstable. By opening children up to places, people, and different cultures, books help children develop empathy for others.

Why are schools trying to ban books? ›

Proponents of the book bans have argued that many of the most commonly banned books are inappropriate for children because they contain references to sex and sexuality, which those groups have labeled “pornography.”

Why is it not okay to ban books? ›

Opponents of bans argue that by restricting information and discouraging freedom of thought, censors undermine one of the primary functions of education: teaching students how to think for themselves. Such actions, assert free speech proponents, endanger tolerance, free expression, and democracy.

Why is there a push to ban books? ›

The book bans represent an immense increase in the number of books banned compared with any previous years and are part of the larger movement to restrict classroom conversations and lessons about race, racism, gender identity, and sexual orientation that has been led by Republican lawmakers and conservative parent ...


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