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CENSORSHIP ATTEMPTED AT 5 SCHOOLS

A liberal watchdog group says censorship of controversial books, student newspapers and plays was attempted five times in Utah schools last year.

People for the American Way said those were among a national record last year of 462 incidents of attempted censorship - which it charges is growing because the religious right is trying harder to restrict information on issues from sexuality to religious diversity."Instead of discussing differences, too many angry people are driven to squelch voices in disagreement. Instead of dialogue, we have shouting and disagreement," said the groups's president, Arthur J. Kropp.

Beyond typical censorship cases, the group's totals included attempts in some areas to institute abstinence-only sex-education classes. The group complained they fail "to provide young people with essential, life-saving information."

The group said the censorship attempts in Utah occurred at Dixie High School in St. George, Payson Middle School, Providence Elementary School in Cache County, West High School and Granite High School. It said two resulted in removing materials from schools.

At Dixie High School, the group said, editors and writers of an alternative high school newspaper, the Frequent Flash, were suspended and papers removed because of a parody advice column.

The report said it answered questions with responses such as, "Have sex with him," or "Who cares? To hell with you."

The report said, "On grounds that school policy prohibits `offensive' material, the school confiscated the paper, gave the two student editors five-day suspensions and give five student writers three-day suspensions."

It said students also agreed to no longer use the school's copier to print the paper and to stop distributing it on campus.

At Payson Middle School, parents and the group Citizens for Common Sense in Schools objected to the book "A Day No Pigs Would Die" by Robert Newton Peck because of profanity, its portrayal of animal breeding and a scene about an infant grave exhumation.

The report said the principal removed the book from the classroom after four complaints - even though a teacher/administration committee had previously cleared its use.

It said he also placed a letter in the teacher's personnel file suggesting that she "discuss topics that are not offensive to the students or their parents."

Nedra Call, the Nebo School District's curriculum coordinator, said the review of this particular issue at Payson Middle School was fair, but she'd like to see the district adopt a more comprehensive review process for future use.

"I felt like it was handled quite well at the time, but probably this is the first situation we've had like that," Call said.

Call added, "We are bringing in representatives from all the secondary schools to put together a policy that will cover the review process at each school level."

The district also is looking at the policies of other school districts to glean ideas on how to handle controversies. "When those issues come up, we want to have an appropriate review process," Call said.

Currently, the Nebo School District does have an appeals process that parents can use to get explanations from teachers as to why particular classroom materials are being used. It includes face-to-face meetings, and if those don't prove satisfactory, parents can get responses from the principal and then up the district's ladder of leaders.

The study said the deputy executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English called the removal of the book at Payson Middle School shocking and "among the most arbitrary" that he had encountered.

In Providence, Cache County, a parent had requested removal from the school library of the book "Snakes? And the Boy Who Was Afraid of Them" by Barry Louis Polisar saying it would make children afraid of snakes. A review committee voted to retain the book, saying it is interesting and imaginative.

At Granite High School, some parents requested removal from approved reading lists of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou because of sexual content. Two school committees and a district committee voted to retain it for classroom use.

Linda Mariotti, secondary language arts specialist for the Granite District who is chairman of the committees, said she is comfortable with the district's policy for evaluating and re-evaluating books. Angelou's novel had been on the list and was reapproved after some parents objected to it.

The reviewing committees are comprised not only of teachers and school administrators but parents, students and PTA representatives as well.

"There's something very effective about a reasonable jury of peers process, which is what we employ," Mariotti said. "I think we have one of the best processes in school districts for evaluating and re-evaluating material."

Mariotti also said that placing a book on the list doesn't mean it will be taught since teachers routinely vary their approaches.

Mariotti said that individual student and parent sensibilities also are protected by having alternative reading material on the list.

A West High performance of "The Shadow Box" by Michael Christofer at a state drama meet brought a protest from the drama coach of another school, who wrote that winning performances at the meet often dealt with "homosexuality, AIDS, death, unwanted preg-nancy, etc." in ways that may not be tasteful.

Students who had performed the play, however, protested, saying that issues in the play - which is set in a hospice and deals with dying - need to be addressed.