Johnston parents file complaint to remove two books from school curriculum

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JOHNSTON, Iowa — The discussion around two books featured in some Johnston High School learning plans turned into a heated debate Thursday night.

The school district’s reconsideration committee held a public meeting following complaints about two novels: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

The committee had the option to recommend removing both books from the curriculum, but decided against it. Instead, members decided to recommend sending warnings to parents about each book’s material in advance of the lesson.

Both books, which focus on non-white characters, have been approved for educational use within Johnston Schools since 2017. They have since been used in some Johnston High School learning plans.

“They’re books related to real-life experience and shows how people respond to something that changes their perspective,” said Johnston High School teacher Kristi Miller.

The public meeting came after parents Mandy and Rodney Gilbert filed a reconsideration request based on the language and themes within the books.

“This has the f-word in it 89 times,” said Mandy Gilbert, referring to The Hate U Give. “There are plenty of perspectives in this world that can address the people of color without derogatory, racist, obscene material.”

“It’s about the law and giving obscene things to children,” added Rodney Gilbert. “If I give this to my 15-year-old neighbor, I would be arrested.”

A slew of Johnston High School students fiercely defended the book in the meeting, stating they are crucial books to help students understand concepts of racism and prejudice.

“This book should not be censored to make lessons of racial injustice palatable to white audiences,” said Johnston High School sophomore Sofia Bristow.

“I experienced my first act of racism at six years old. I was told because I had dark skin, the other kids weren’t going to play with me,” said Johnston High School freshman Kaylee Jones, who is half-Black. “All that The Hate U Give is doing is drawing attention to the problem, and I’m asking you to hear me out.”

Teachers told the committee they always give students the option to pick another book if they do not feel comfortable with the concepts in either text, but that it has not been a problem since the books in question were introduced.

“How many times have parents expressed concern about the book? Never in my class,” Miller said.

The committee’s recommendation will go to Johnston school superintendent Laura Kacer’s office, and committee members believe Thursday’s debate taught the community a lesson in itself.

“I want teachers to be trusted and also to be partners with those parents,” said committee member Mary Cooksey.

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