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It's Banned Books Week--a topic which some Vail students know all too well

As Brennan Smith stepped into his Advanced Placement literature class at Empire High School, in the Vail School District, on Monday, Sept. 8, he says he knew the rumors were true by the look on his teacher's face.

All teacher Katie Garcia was allowed to do was hand out a statement written by the principal, and initialed by the superintendent, stating that the book the class had been reading was being pulled from the curriculum. She then walked around the classroom with a plastic crate to collect the books from her students.

There would be no stimulating discussion about the climactic final chapters of James Baldwin's Another Country. The book had been banned.

"We were cheated," Smith says. "We were all robbed."

The senior-level Advanced Placement literature class had spent the past six weeks reading, analyzing and discussing Baldwin's controversial book, published in 1962, about a group of artists, musicians and writers living the bohemian lifestyle in New York's Greenwich Village during the 1950s.

Principal Matt Donaldson knew the book was controversial when it was placed in the curriculum; it was taught in the class last year. However, a parent's objections about the book's graphic sexual depictions forced him to reconsider.

If he had to do it all over again, Donaldson says, he would have let the class finish their last discussion, and then he would have pulled the book for next year's class.

But this was his first book ban.

The decision to pull the book was his, Donaldson says. The Vail district's governing board did not vote on it, and he says he didn't feel any pressure from above to get rid of Another Country.

Krista Gypton, head of the Empire High School English Department, described the faculty as "up in arms." She says teachers threatened to quit over the decision and believes it was not as simple as it sounds.

"It seemed out of character for Principal Donaldson," she says, adding that she supports Donaldson because he supports his teachers.

Over the summer, parents signed a syllabus listing the required texts. If parents objected to the material, their children could study alternate books. But that wasn't enough for one parent who wanted Another Country out of the classroom.

A week after the class started reading the book (with her daughter reading the alternate book), Danielle Schneider made phone calls to Donaldson, teachers and Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker. "I felt like it was written pornography," Schneider told the Weekly.

Schneider admits she didn't read the whole book, but says the graphic sexual scenes she did read were "titillating." Schneider says she felt that forcing students to read it bordered on sexual abuse. Students who want to continue reading the book can do so at the school library, where it remains available. But any discussion about Another Country between the students and the teacher has been prohibited in the classroom.

Instead of the planned lesson on Sept. 8, Garcia's fourth-period class had a discussion on the effects that banning books can have on an educational system. The question was posed on a large, bright-red sheet of paper, and the students were invited to write their thoughts underneath--a technique known to the class as a "chalk talk."

Smith says his fellow students wrote concerns about being sheltered and the dumbing-down of the Advanced Placement course.

"This could have a domino effect on tons of our literature," he says. "If this book is too controversial, how many of our books can they take away?"

After the class discussion, the students decided they had to do something. Smith, the senior-class vice president, and his friend, Mark Jacobson, a fellow Advanced Placement senior, decided to take the issue to the district governing board meeting the next day, on Tuesday, Sept. 9. They filled out the required forms and planned their three-minute speech.

Before they had a chance to speak, however, Assistant Superintendent Debbie Hedgepeth took Smith, Jacobson and Jacobson's mother to her office. According to the boys, Hedgepeth was explaining the situation to Claire Jacobson when Superintendent Baker walked into the room. He re-explained the situation to them and asked the boys if they still intended to speak at the meeting.

Both Jacobson and Smith independently described the situation as "intimidating" and say the undertones of the superintendent's message were clear: Let it go.

The boys didn't let it go. They spoke that night in front of about 30 people--mostly district employees--and described how the literary merits of Another Country far outweighed the drug and sex references, and pointed out that the book is on the Advanced Placement reading list and could be on the nationally administered exam in May. (Advanced Placement students can receive college credit if they do well enough on the exam.) According to meeting rules, the board was only allowed to listen, not respond.

Though he doesn't agree that the book is too racy for high school seniors, Jacobson says he understands why the book was pulled.

"But I don't understand what they did before the meeting," he says, referring to the fact that Baker took them aside before they spoke.

"We felt dirty," Smith says. "As long as I've been at Empire, we've always been taught to voice our opinion."

Superintendent Baker never told the boys they couldn't speak at the meeting, but Smith believes Baker was attempting to silence them, and accuses him of "trying to sweep the issue under the rug."

Superintendent Baker responds that he knows how to intimidate, and he was doing his best not to scare the two. He says pulling people aside to address their concerns before a meeting is standard, and he can't control the students' perceptions.

"I didn't stay in education this long just to bully kids," he says.

He says he consulted with school staff before the book was removed. He says the book decision would ultimately be up to the school board, but members didn't take a vote.

"Mr. Donaldson says he made the decision, and I certainly agree with that. We made it together," Baker says in one breath.

The book was pulled, Baker says, because it was never on the district-approved list. Last year, when it was first taught, the previous principal approved the book as an exception. The book is on the Advanced Placement reading list, he says, but there are no questions on any specific book on the exam. There are other books that can teach the same things without the graphic sex scenes.

Ironically, the American Library Association's Banned Books Week runs through Oct. 4. Libraries are encouraged to teach students and the public about the importance of differing opinions, the freedom of speech and press, and books that have been challenged or banned.

The association produces an annual list of the most-challenged books and tracks book challenges and bans nationwide. Another Country is not listed on the ALA's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990-2007.

The ALA reports no records of previous challenges or bans in the Vail School District--but they estimate that for every challenge reported to the American Library Association, four or five challenges are never reported.

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