Parents and students came to the defense of the Burbank Unified School District during a virtual Board of Education meeting on Thursday, supporting its decision not to allow teachers to include several books in their lesson plans for the year as it reevaluates its core curriculum.
Over the past two months, a slew of teachers, students and parents have voiced their disapproval over the district’s exclusion of “To Kill a Mockingbird, “The Cay,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice of Men.” Though they are not part of the curriculum at the moment, the books, which have racially oriented content, are available to all students at each school library.
The decision came after multiple families complained to the district and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee submitted a report to Superintendent Matt Hill, who on Friday, Nov. 27, will announce his decision on how to move forward.
Hill reiterated what he’s told stakeholders since September, saying, “We are not censoring books. We are not banning books. We’re talking about how to make a more robust curriculum that respects every single child in this district, and we have to find a path for it.
“I would say it’s been an emotional process, it’s a passionate process,” he added. “The No. 1 thing is when we talk about race and racism, we do need to approach this work with open ears and open hearts. It’s one thing to have a conversation and try to get one point across. It’s a much better conversation when we switch it to a dialogue, and I just want to keep encouraging all of us to have that dialogue.”
Rosemary Morrison, a BUSD parent, renewed that dialogue during the public comment portion of the meeting by saying the backlash from community members discourages Black students and families from sharing their experiences.
“These books are taught by teachers, according to some of them who have come on board, who can’t even imagine what it’s like to be the only Black child in the classroom when these books are being read, hearing their teacher and classmate use the N-word, hearing horrific stories about what’s happened in the past and feeling all the eyes on them,” Morrison said. “Look at how the teachers are reacting and the students are reacting to just the discussion of reviewing the books. Does that make any child feel safe to come to anyone and say, ‘Hey, that upsets me when you do that’?”
Besides echoing Morrison’s concern, another parent expressed displeasure over what she said was misinformation being spread about the complaint process.
“The reading of these books has resulted in Black students being traumatized, including being harassed by other students imitating what happens in the stories but not limited to just that,” said Leila Forouzan, who suggested new narratives written by Black authors. “There are those who say it’s only one family and one child that was harmed. Given the pushback that we’ve seen and the knee-jerk defensiveness, do you see that many children and families would not feel safe sharing their experiences publicly, even now, given this discussion?”
Nadra Ostrom, one of the parents who filed a complaint, said that she does not favor the censorship of the books but that community members must be aware that the “some kids are using the books in question to racially target Black students.”
She also defended the district’s decision as it reviews a curriculum that has not been changed in decades.
“The process has also been criticized as being too emotional, but we parents have done our homework,” said Ostrom, who sits on the DEI committee. “We brought resources and evidence of the harmful impact that this instruction has had on Black students. We are not just a bunch of emotional parents.”
Hill appreciated the comments about the issue and shared his own experience of discussing “To Kill a Mockingbird” — one of his favorite books — in a social justice class.
“I was the only white male in that class,” he said. “I started talking about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and my other classmate said, ‘That’s not how I interpreted the book. That’s not how I felt. Have your read this book, “Just Mercy?” Have you heard about [Black attorney] Bryan Stevenson, the true Atticus Finch?’
“And I hadn’t. I wasn’t exposed to that. I barely knew who he was, and here I am in a doctoral program on social justice. It changed my perspective completely, and that’s the power of listening and hearing others and their experiences, and how we can find amazing award-winning novels but also provide a foundation.”
Board President Armond Aghakhanian said this discussion and process goes beyond books.
“This is about us as human beings,” he said. “This is about Burbank. This is about us as educators providing our students with the most powerful weapon in the world, which is education.”
COVID-19 SURGE ADDRESSED
With Los Angeles County reporting on Thursday that it had just recorded a daily record number of COVID-19 cases, district officials warned parents that distance learning may continue through the remainder of the academic year.
“We are in the middle of a very serious surge of COVID cases across the world, across the country and definitely here in Los Angeles County,” said Hill, who said he wants to be transparent with the community. “To be able to make a transition to a different learning model in January, we need the rates to stabilize so that we can do all the planning and be able to change schedules, change teachers, move to [a hybrid model that partly includes on-campus instruction]. … Right now, it’s not feasible.”
Hill said it may be best to shift the focus to developing a plan for small groups of students to return to campus for club activities. Athletes were recently given the green light to use school facilities for conditioning workouts as long as they follow county health guidelines.
The district is also working to bring back special education students for small group instruction and reaching out to those who have been struggling with distance learning.