Bentonville parents complain of explicit material in high school library

Bentonville School District administration building.

BENTONVILLE -- Twelve parents and community members on Tuesday asked School Board members to remove books from the high school library they said contain sexually explicit content.

The group read passages from the books during a public comment session that lasted nearly 50 minutes. The excerpts contained scenes of sex, child rape, incest, torture and murder, although the readers did not say which books the passages came from.

After the meeting, Jason Maxwell, District 12 state representative candidate, confirmed the books were "A Court of Mist and Fury" by Sarah J. Maas; "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison; "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini; and "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy. Maxwell is a Gravette resident and doesn't have a child in Bentonville Schools, but said District 12 includes part of the Bentonville School District.

Parent Tanya Charlton questioned the educational purpose of the passages and asked the board to remove the books from the library. She suggested implementing a rating system for books and creating a parent coalition that addresses the issue.

Another parent, Lisa Richards, said she also serves as a court appointed special advocate and sees many children removed from their home for physical and sexual abuse. She said the school should not have books that make excuses for that type of behavior, especially for young people who are trying to understand what is correct and permissible.

Parent Andrea Placzek said she wasn't familiar with the content that was read, but cautioned that people who ban books are rarely on the right side of history.

Eric White, board president, said he doesn't think it's coincidental the discussion began at the same time as the political campaign season.

Since 2017, the four books have been checked out fewer than 10 times, White said. During the same time period, the district has graduated approximately 10,000 seniors, he said.

"It's pretty clear the books are more popular to try to divide our community than they were with the kids," he said.

White said he trusts the judgment of the district's media specialists, who are highly qualified professionals. They aren't trying to slip in inappropriate books and don't have a hidden agenda, he said.

White said he does not like the language and was uncomfortable listening to the passages, but the excerpts don't rise to the level of restriction requested when measured against the First Amendment rights of all citizens, including kids, and balanced against known outcomes of well documented case law.

The School Board passed a policy in December that allows any parent in the district to challenge reading material. The challenge form allows parents to give schools a list of books their children won't be allowed to read. It also allows parents to suggest the books be pulled from the library.

Under the new policy, parents rather than the government decide what is right for kids, White said.

No challenge forms have been received for any book since the policy was approved in December, said Leslee Wright, district spokeswoman.

Two of the books Maxwell raised concerns about are on the Advanced Placement Literature Test reading list, and one is on the International Baccalaureate literature class reading list, said Jennifer Morrow, executive director of secondary education. They are primarily available to high school juniors and seniors who are 17 to 18 years old, she said.

Morrow said she could not confirm the content read during the meeting was from the four books.

Any parent or student in an Advanced Placement class will be given an alternate reading assignment if they object to a book, Wright said.

Parent Joel Miley said he was unaware he could file a form to restrict the books his child can read, but was also unaware the library had books with explicit content. He said it has been hard to eat and sleep after reading the quotes he read during the meeting.

Maxwell said making it the parent's responsibility to know what's in the thousands of books in the library is absurd. He said he would prefer to see a policy that would require parents to opt in to allow their kids to read controversial books rather than opt out.

The story was updated to correct Jason Maxwell's name.