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Turning the pages on smut

by: Vern Uyetake, Kimberly and Stuart Wall are concerned about some of the books their son Greg brings home from junior high school.

When Kimberly Wall flipped through the book her 13-year-old son Greg was reading for language arts extra credit, she thought someone had made a mistake.

The novel, 'Shattering Glass,' was peppered with - at her estimation - 50 profanities, ranging from derogatory slang terms to sexual encounters and violence.

Wall wondered why Greg and his peers at Lake Oswego Junior High School had access to the book in the first place. She thought the school may have distributed 'Glass' - along with 'Whale Talk,' 'Alt Ed' and 'The Chocolate War' - by accident.

'I was saddened to find out they were all chosen by the school,' Wall said.

Now Wall is asking district officials to take a closer look at the types of books junior high school students are reading and establish a parental permission process.

Most of all, she prefers to see the four books come off LOJHS shelves. Wall believes the material in all of them is inappropriate for 13 year olds, and does not belong in an eighth grade curriculum.

'The stories are pretty good but they got covered in smut,' she said. 'The morals just got lost in the garbage.'

Wall, a mother of four children in the district, brought her complaints before the Lake Oswego School Board Monday. She presented each board member with photocopies of excerpts where she highlighted words she deemed questionable.

'If they don't allow that language or behavior in school, why teach it to the (kids)?' she asked. 'I'm not advocating book burning, but it shouldn't be in the schools.'

It just so happens that the district's entire language arts curriculum is up for an extensive review this year.

Superintendent Bill Korach told Wall that a teacher committee and the board would look into the appropriateness of the disputed books in conjunction with the review.

Wall was invited to sit in on committee meetings, and Korach said the books would not be offered again until they've been critiqued.

'I know from talking to the board that they're very interested in having the ability to approve any reading options we're providing to students,' Korach said. 'I think we can come up with a very satisfactory outcome to suit (Wall's) interests.'

Korach's response pleased Wall, who says she is proud her kids attend school in the district.

'If we work together, we'll do a better job,' she said.

The four books in question were included as optional selections in a bullying unit developed in 2003 by LOJHS teachers as part of a district-wide respectful culture plan.

The unit is meant to teach students about situations and people they could confront in the future so they can think about and discuss how they would react. The negative language is always associated with unsavory characters.

'Part of what we are teaching in eighth grade (is) seeing other people's perspective and how you fit in,' said Principal Ann Gerson.

For the most part, feedback has been positive, she added.

'It's the first time (many students) really get excited and want to read more because it's meaningful to them and they can relate to it,' she said. 'It's about their world.'

Typically, required core and extended reading materials are assigned to students after a lengthy approval process that includes piloting each selection and getting an OK from the board.

The books being disputed by Wall, however, did not go through that approval process. Korach said the board might decide to change that practice.

The school has decided to begin sending summaries and letters home via postal mail.

In the case of optional books, it's ultimately left to the student to decide whether to read it, Korach said. A student can also opt out of a required reading assignment for personal reasons.

In a published response to a letter in the Review, Gerson said teachers urged students to make the choice of a book that would be comfortable for them and their families. They also encouraged students to discuss the books with their parents.

Greg said he knew 'Glass' had mature dialogue and situations in it, but took it home anyway. He said he was surprised at the amount of swear words in the book and immediately showed it to his mom.

'I didn't know it was going to be that bad,' he said.

Then, as part of a Boy Scout project to earn a badge, he wrote a letter to the Review explaining why he felt the books were inappropriate for people his age. The letter prompted several comments on the Review Web site and in the newspaper, both for and against the books.

'Doing the right thing is not easy but it's always right,' said Greg's dad, Stuart.

Since the unit was put into place three years ago, only Wall has come forward to complain about the books and met with teachers and administrators.

'I think nobody's said anything because the kids haven't said anything to their parents,' she said.

The students are given a list of the books' summaries and a letter to take to their parents. Four out of the eight optional books offered are labeled as having 'mature content/language.'

Parents are not asked to approve their child's book selections, and Wall believes they should ('Not everything makes it home,' she said). A 'mature content' label is too vague, she added.

'There could be a place to use these in the future, but parents need to know,' Kimberly Wall said. 'We know what our kids are ready for.'

Kimberly and Stuart run a conservative household and try to limit their kids' exposure to adult language, sex and violence as much as possible.

They believe lessons in right and wrong can be learned through real life, including instances of bullying that make the nightly news - not through extra credit assignments.

'We're trying to raise upstanding members of society who respect themselves and other people,' Kimberly Wall said. 'We can't enforce our standards on other people, but we can protect our children.'