Gallatin News

‘Perks’ book to remain amid school board obscenity debate

The debate over whether or not books that contain detailed descriptions of sex should remain in high school libraries took center stage again at this month’s Sumner County Board of Education meeting.

This time debate centered around the cult classic “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Written by Stephen Chbosky and released in 1999, the coming-of-age novel is told from the point of view of Charlie, a smart misfit who is coping with a friend’s recent suicide.

“Parents need to know that this coming-of-age classic features a lot of mature material including an abortion, repressed memories of sexual abuse, and men having sex with one another (sometimes anonymously),” writes Common Sense Media, an organization that reviews and provides ratings for those trying to determine a book’s suitability for children.

“Even so, it has become a classic of sorts because of its tender coming-of-age story that’s easy to compare to ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Parents who are concerned about the mature material may want to consider reading it along with their kids.”

The book caught the attention of District 11 School Board member Andy Lacy in January when the Wilson County School Board voted to keep the book in its libraries and move it to a mature reading list.  

Following that decision, State Rep. Susan Lynn wrote to the Wilson County School Board informing them that because the book contained “sexually explicit” content, it was in violation of state law by making the book available to minors.

A day after Lynn’s letter became public, Lacy emailed Sumner County School Board Chairman Tim Brewer and then-Director of Schools Del Phillips asking that the book be removed immediately from Sumner County school libraries.

Lacy asserted the book violated both state law (TCA 39-17-911) and school board policy 4.40012 for obscene materials. Both state that it is against the law and board policy to loan to a minor any book… “that contains explicit and detailed verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sado-masochistic abuse, and that is harmful to minors.”

In his email, Lacy quoted several passages from the book including the following rape scene:

“The boy pushed the girl’s head down, and she started to kiss his p***s. She was still crying. Finally, she stopped crying because he put his p***s in her mouth, and I don’t think you can cry in that position. I had to stop watching at that point because I started to feel sick, but it kept going on, and they kept doing other things, and she kept saying ‘no.’ Even when I covered my ears, I could still hear her say that.”

Most school committees recommend keeping book

Per the school board policy for reviewing challenged books, a school review committee was established at each of the high schools the book is available at: Merrol Hyde Magnet School and Gallatin, Hendersonville, Station Camp, White House and Westmoreland High Schools. All of the school committees except Westmoreland voted to keep the book on its shelves.

The Gallatin committee said that it used the Miller Test, developed from a 1973 Supreme Court ruling, to determine whether or not the book was obscene.

“The novel is neither legally ‘obscene’ nor legally ‘harmful to minors’ based on the criteria used above,” the committee wrote in its recommendation. “This, in and of itself, is not a definitive defense for keeping a book in a high school library; however, when we consider the Age-Appropriate Materials Act criteria set forth by the state, the members of our committee feel that the student community of Gallatin High School is made up of the maturity level for which this book is appropriate.”

Hendersonville’s review was less detailed and did not include a report.

“The committee unanimously does not find the book obscene and recommends it remains on the shelves at HHS,” that committee wrote.

“This book is ultimately about mental health,” wrote the Station Camp High committee in its recommendation. “It is meant to create a dialogue as all the topics (rape, molestation, drug use, anxiety, depression) effect teens daily. They need to know they are not alone. When you read this book you walk in his shoes.”

Westmoreland High’s committee voted 3 to 2 to remove the book with one member abstaining.

“This was an extremely difficult task for which our committee was unable to reach consensus,” the committee wrote. “The ‘guidance’ provided did not provide guidance.  Additionally, it did not mirror Sumner County School Board policy, nor Tennessee Code Annontated.”

Board may reconsider its obscene materials policy

During the July 18 school board meeting, Lacy asked school board attorney Todd Presnell and Director of Schools Scott Langford about what guidance the committees were given.

“Why did we not use board policy and Tennessee law to determine whether this book was obscene or not?” Lacy asked.

Presnell said he was asked to prepare a document summarizing the definition of obscenity and sent that to the committees.

“Since you referenced obscenity, we asked Mr. Presnell to provide guidance on obscenity so the review committees looked at obscenity and age-appropriateness,” said Langford.

Lacy asked if the board needed to revise its obscenity policy rather than just mirror the state statute.

Presnell agreed.

“I suggest the board take up the policy in a study session now that we have an Age-Appropriate Materials Act,” he said.

Langford seemed to agree that the policy needs to be re-evaluated as well.

“It just restates the obscenity law but it doesn’t give any guidance for what to do,” he said.

Steven King

District 5 school board member Steven King said he finds it hard to believe that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on school library books.

“I think we need to have those discussions as a board,” he said.

King added he thought the Miller Test was intended to determine obscenity for adults and not for minors.

“We evaluated a book based on criteria for adults,” he said.

Langford disagreed.

“Their number one priority was to make sure nothing was done that was harmful to minors,” said Langford.

District 9 school board member Josh Graham read aloud the book passage cited in Lacy’s email. Graham asked why the book ‘Lawn Boy’ was removed from two school libraries in November under the board’s obscene materials policy and ‘Perks’ wouldn’t be since both contain descriptions of oral sex.

Both a school review committee at Hendersonville and Gallatin High schools said ‘Lawn Boy’ violated Board policy 4.40012 in regards to obscene materials, and the book was removed.

District 1 school board member Tammy Hayes said parents should be able to make the ultimate decision on what books their children can read.

“As a parent there were books I didn’t want or allow my child to read, but I didn’t expect for that book to be kept for other children and families,” she said.

Betsy Hawkins

Betsy Hawkins of District 6 said she also supported keeping ‘Perks’ in school libraries.  

The book is a cautionary tale, she added, that bad things can happen to good kids.

“If you want to protect your kids, educate them,” she said. “My children – I would want them to read this book. I wanted to prepare [them] for the real world… There are other parents who want to be able to prepare their children.”

School board members voted 6 to 4 to uphold the school review committees’ recommendations and keep the books on school library shelves. Voting yes were Hayes, Brewer, Hawkins, Sarah Andrews of district 4, Ted Wise of district 8 and Glen Gregory of district 10.