Coloma Board of Education responds to concerned parents over book they call 'pornographic'

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COLOMA, Ind.-- Parents in Coloma are outraged over a young adult novel gifted to seventh-grade students this week. Friday, the Coloma Board of Education responded to those concerned parents in a letter.

Even though it was given as a gift, and not a part of these seventh-graders' school work, Coloma's parents tell ABC57 NightTeam, they should have gotten prior notice before the teacher handed it out to students.

Stephanie Sexton is one of several Coloma parents appalled by a teacher giving seventh-graders a copy of "Looking for Alaska" by Indiana author John Green. It includes profane language and one brief sexually explicit scene that involves oral sex.

“I was appalled. I was disgusted because this book is absolutely disgusting and should not be material that’s distributed to minors," Sexton said.

Some have filed police reports, accusing the teacher of distributing pornographic material to children.

The Coloma school board sent a letter to parents Friday, reading in part:

"We have heard and recognize your concerns over the recent gifting of a book by a teacher at Coloma Junior High that contains some topics that may be controversial or offensive to some families. We are working with the district’s administration and attorney to thoroughly review this situation. Through our review of policy and procedures, we will determine the steps needed to ensure this will not happen in the future. Appropriate action by the Board of Education and administration will take place once the full review has been completed."

Some advocates believe this points to a larger debate happening nationwide.

"What we are seeing is more and more extreme reactions to the availability of information that some people don't like," said Jonathan Friedman.

Friedman is the director of free expression and education programs for PEN America, which fights against book bans.

"The book bans we have seen over the past two years have overwhelmingly targeted books about racism, books with LGBTQ identities, or books that have some amount of sexual content," he said.

The organization estimates more than 2,500 instances of book banning in the United States between July 2021 and June 2022.

"And with regard to sexual content, you know, this isn't a newly controversial topic, the question of how should schools teach about this," Friedman said. "But, we have to really be careful about what the alternatives are. If schools don't teach young people about sex at all, where are they going to learn about it?"

Friedman says the challenges against children's literature are on the rise, especially in the past year and a half.

"Often what they're saying is that the books are obscene or pornographic, and saying that the people who put the books in schools or in school libraries should go to jail or be fined or in some way a criminal," he said. "None of this is actually based in any legal definition of pornography or obscene materials, which is not the same thing as literature that has sex in it."

He believes withholding information from young adults to conserve what some consider "parental rights" is not a healthy phenomenon in public schools.

"When you think about a school library, it's not necessarily about being very overly prescriptive and restrictive about what it is that every student is able to read, to learn about, to get information about. It's part of their freedom to read, really."

"When I read about a story like this, about parents calling the police, I have to ask what their motives are," Friedman continued. "Is the goal really to provide a better education to their children? Or, you know, why are you trying to be so punitive to the teacher here, why try to make a bigger scene or bigger story? It seems like outrage is driving this, and no kind of cool-headedness, or acceptance of the idea that maybe somebody did something, and maybe they made a mistake. The quick call to the police is really concerning. Why would we call the police over the availability of a book that might teach somebody something about the world?"

To be clear, police reports were filed, but ABC57 is not aware of any parents actually calling the police. 

Friedman said he is familiar with "Looking for Alaska," since it is one of the top challenged books in the country over the last school year, facing challenges in 11 school districts according to PEN America. 

"A book like 'Looking for Alaska' does have some sexual content, but the book as a whole is not about that whatsoever. It's a coming-of-age story it is beautifully written. It inspires people to learn about the history of the world in the way it weaves in classic literature, and political leaders into a story that feels deeply relatable," he said. "To reduce the book to the one page on which some of the characters, who are teenagers, who engage in a sexual act, is doing a disservice to the book and suggests that any work of literature that tried to reflect that true aspect of humanity should somehow be consigned to, I don't know, adult bookstores, or in some cases, garbage bins, dumpster fires… these are books that people love to read, why would we ban them?"

It is unclear if the teacher at the center of this will face disciplinary action, but her attorney says none has been taken yet.

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