UPDATED: 11/15/2017 With results. 

A new policy that could dramatically change what students read as a part of their curriculum in the Conejo Valley Unified School District passed by a 3-1 vote on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at a meeting of the Board of Education. 

The District consists of K-12 schools in Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Newbury Park. The Board consists of five members: President Mike Dunn, Vice President John Anderson, Sandee Everett, Betsy Connolly and Patricia Phelps.

The vote took place just before midnight in a previously crowded boardroom in Thousand Oaks, where earlier in the night, attendees spilled out into the hallway and lobby area of the CVUSD building. After several hours of public comments and a line-by-line reading of the policy, however, the mixed crowd had dwindled.

A majority of parents and students were in opposition to the proposed policy, displaying signs reading “Let Teachers Teach” and anti-censorship imagery.

Some parents in support of the policy read an excerpt from Snow Falling on Cedars, a 1994 novel by David Guterson, in which a sexual encounter is described in detail.

“If there’s any argument that this enriches anyone, literarily, morally, prepares them for the real world, please let us know by applauding and whooping it up,” speaker Paul White told the audience. A resident of the city of Ventura and founder of the Ventura-based Stronghold Institute, which is described as “Bible-Based Learning & Healing,” White has no students in the District, but says that he “has an interest in quality of life throughout the county.” 

Anderson then paused public comment to remind parents and students to remain civil, this after the Tuesday, Nov. 7 board meeting saw rampant jeers, boos and heckling.

The proposal will require instructors to receive permission from parents before proceeding with book assignments, creating syllabi and providing written and oral warnings if said book contains adult material. The proposal passed with the support of Everett, Dunn and Anderson, with Connolly dissenting and board member Phelps absent for the meeting.

Unified Association of Conejo Teachers President Randy Smith says that on Monday, Nov. 13, an emergency meeting was called in order to attempt to work with Everett on a policy that moves more toward the middle of what both the teachers and Board desire. Smith says the meeting was “very productive,” and many of the concessions were added to the policy prior to the vote.

Photo by Maya Chari.

“Mrs. Everett said she was going to work with Superintendent Dr. [Mark] McLaughlin on amending her policy, but I won’t know what that amended policy looks like until it’s presented tonight,” said Smith earlier on Tuesday afternoon, adding that he had “a high degree of confidence that there’s going to be a lot of positive changes, which will make this a policy one we can work with.”

Amendments to the original policy include clarifying that it only affects grades 9 through 12 and only the English language arts subject and clarifying the process through which parents can request an alternative assignment, but board members Dunn and Everett said that the policy can be tweaked later on as well.

Everett, M.S.Ed., introduced the proposal at a public meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, and Dunn fast-tracked the amendment to the instructional-material policy, setting a vote for Tuesday, Nov. 14. Over 100 parents, students and educators turned out for the Nov. 7 meeting, with more than half unable to give comment on the proposed policy after the meeting ran to 11:30 p.m.

Before the new policy was passed, parents and students who objected to questionable material were able to bring their concerns to teachers and discuss alternative options; the new proposal switches from opt-out to opt-in, requiring that teachers receive parental permission prior to the beginning of the school year should they choose to teach a book containing adult material.

The policy affects novels containing adult themes and appearing on the California Department of Education’s Recommended Literature List. Two-hundred and 12 novels, including J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, as well as nonfiction works on World War II, scientific endeavors and more, carry the annotation that “This book was published for an adult readership and thus contains mature content. Before handing the text to a child, educators and parents should read the book and know the child.”

Photo by Maya Chari.

If one of the 212 books is chosen by an instructor for the school year, the following advisement would be required to be emailed to parents/guardians and presented at parent-teacher nights in addition to the annotation:

“Parents please be advised that the mature content in this book may include one or more of the following: graphic rape, graphic abusive human rights violations, graphic sex, graphic violence and suicidal ideation. The California Department of Education and the CVUSD Board of Education encourage parents to read this book before allowing your child to read it.”

The proposal also requires teachers offer a District-developed “alternative assignment when the content of these materials do not align with or are in conflict with personal sensibilities and/or values” and, if a request is made, the request be honored “while taking special care not to embarrass the student.”

Reading options, including alternative choices, would be required to be selected “no later than the school’s parent-teacher night,” and the District would provide ways for parents/guardians to access online reviews of the material.

The policy also creates a “committee of parents/legal guardians and community members” who will “also review instructional materials and make their recommendations to the board.”

Regardless of whether or not one of the 212 books is selected, the policy would require notifying parents/guardians that they have a right to request an alternative assignment. This statement would appear on a syllabus which must be signed and returned.

Board Trustee Betsy Connolly, who voted against the policy on Tuesday evening, says that the way it is written is “intended to make it so difficult to comply with the requirements that none of these books are ever taught in the CVUSD again,” noting that there is no current requirement for teachers to have syllabi and that collecting signatures from every parent is difficult.

“We can’t get a one-third of the parents to return the permission form when kids are going to the Civic Arts Plaza without chasing them all over the place, can you imagine trying to get these back before you can start instruction?” added Connolly. “It is a way for [Everett] and her supporters to cleanse the curriculum of material they don’t approve of without the stigma attached to the words ‘book banning.’”

In October, the Board unanimously created two committees, one comprised of teachers and administrators dubbed the Core Literature Committee, and one ad-hoc committee of board trustees Phelps and Everett, to work on writing a policy that would codify opting out for students and parents who object to controversial material. An informal poll conducted prior to an October board meeting found that since 1985, only 12 students requested an alternative assignment within the District.

When the committee was to submit its finished policy to the board, however, Everett introduced a new policy of her own creation. Members of the committee asked that both proposals be put on the agenda, but Dunn refused, allowing only Everett’s.

Michelle Saremi, journalism and English teacher at Newbury Park High School, attended the Nov. 7 meeting.

“Everett spent 31 minutes going over her policy and claiming that it was a collaborative effort; I can tell you, as an English teacher working with my colleagues, it was not a collaborative effort,” said Saremi. “I don’t know where she got that policy from, it was not the policy that has been worked on and flushed out for the last five weeks with the teachers and with the parents.”

The committee-drafted policy would provide parents with a District Parent Letter reviewing the core literature program and provide “a description of the alternative assignment process when core literature materials are not aligned to parent or student values.” Parents and students would be required to meet with the instructor to express concerns, and if the parent’s concerns remain unresolved following the meeting, an alternative-assignment would be provided by the District.

Saremi says that Everett’s policy would make it extremely difficult for instruction to take place.

“You could have five different assignments going on in the same class at the same time. There goes class discussion, spontaneity and passion of the teacher because everything is being written and approved by the board,” said Saremi. 

In defense of her proposal, Everett says that alternative assignments would be district-developed, not teacher developed.

“The recommendations of both committees were taken into consideration,” said Everett. “The superintendent’s committee would not consider any of the proposed changes I presented to them, including the California Department of Education recommendation that educators and parents read the books with mature content, and know the child, before handing it to the child. This is a main difference between my amendments and their proposal.”

Newbury Park senior Caitlin Henderson isn’t so much concerned with how the new policy would affect her, as she will be graduating soon, but for what it could mean for future students. Henderson is the co-editor-in-chief for the school’s Panther Prowler student newspaper, which experienced its own bout of controversy after publishing an article in 2015 dubbed “Sex: Undressing the Issue.”

Henderson points to a 2016 interview with then candidate Sandee Everett, in which she was asked, “Are there any specific changes you’d approve for the general education curriculum?”

“Not really, I think that that should be up to — I really believe that teachers should be the ones who determine the curriculum,” Everett said.

“If these materials are up for board approval, then anything would essentially require a parent’s signature for reading materials,” said Henderson, potentially affecting materials proposed for instruction in science, history, math and arts as well as in the English language curriculum.

Whether or not to include Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, discussed at a board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 16, shone a light on attempts by the Board to remove controversial material. Board President Mike Dunn cast the sole vote to remove the book from the district’s ninth-grade curriculum in August, the motion failing. The issue of the district’s opt-out policy was discussed, with Dunn telling the VCStar that if a teacher has the opportunity to refuse an opt-out request, an opt-out policy doesn’t exist.

Earlier in the evening at the Tuesday, Nov. 14 board meeting, Dunn removed the purchase order for Alexie’s novel; after the amended policy passed, he returned it to the consent agenda.