The Children Must Be Protected!
But from what? Comparing two stories from Tennessee that show our society's contradictory impulses when it comes to "protecting the children."
Yesterday’s open forum kicked off with Mu Yixiao posting a link to a Reason story about how a Tenessee School District has banned Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel, Maus:
The book was being taught to eighth graders as part of a unit on the Holocaust. A few people attending the meeting objected to the book’s “rough, objectionable language,” and they initially wanted to redact “eight curse words” and one graphic image. The complaints expanded from there, with board member Tony Allman seeming to believe that the horrors of the Holocaust should not be taught to schoolchildren in general.
Banning books for content is sadly not a new phenomenon in the US. However, despite the nature of its content, Maus has not traditionally been a target of such bans. Based on a brief search of the American Librarian Association’s banned book site and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s site, there aren’t many recorded cases where Maus has been banned in the past. The most dramatic incident didn’t even take place in the US. In 2015 Moscow bookstores stopped selling copies of the book due to the presence of a Swastika on its cover:
The book’s removal is apparently in response to a recent crackdown by Russian authorities on Nazi insignia. In December, Russia passed a law forbidding “Nazi propaganda”, and since then authorities have reportedly raided toy stores and antique shops believed to carry the paraphernalia.
“I don’t think Maus was the intended target for this, obviously,” Spiegelman said. “But I think [the law] had an intentional effect of squelching freedom of expression in Russia. The whole goal seems to make anybody in the expression business skittish.”
The only other incident I could find was a case in which a patron of the Pasadena (CA) Public Library challenged the book over its portrayal of Polish citizens as pigs1 (Germans were cats and Jews were mice in the story).
In our library system, Maus was challenged over its portrayal of the Poles. The challenge was made by a Polish-American who is very proud of his heritage, and who had made other suggestions about adding books on Polish history, for our library’s collection, so it was not out of the blue. The thing is, Maus made him uncomfortable, so he didn’t want other people to read it. That is censorship, as opposed to parental guidance.
So what exactly were the issues with the book in McMinn county, Tenessee? Returning to the Reason article, board member Tony Allman summed things up by saying “[b]eing in the schools, educators, and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.” Here are examples of “this kind of stuff”:
Lee Parkison, a teacher at the meeting, pointed out that Maus had been approved for use in schools on the state level in Tennessee, notwithstanding the eight words and one picture that raised concerns in McMinn County. The offensive image was not specifically identified in the minutes of the meeting, but it was probably a very vague and easy-to-miss drawing in a story-within-the-story of his human mother’s topless dead body in a tub after she killed herself. (Another possible target: male cartoon mice shown nude in a shower in their death camp.) The discussion did not identify the eight forbidden words either, though it alludes to “bitch” and “goddamn.” [Reason senior editor Brian Doherty] noticed a “god damn” and a “hell” thumbing through the book this morning, but this book is not rife with harsh language that should shock an early teen.
Board member Mike Cochran felt that mixing Holocaust education with Maus‘s depiction of Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide decades after her camp experience, and the harsh language against his survivor father, was not necessary for schoolchildren. Cochran also noted two non-Maus examples from the school curriculum, a poem discussing kisses and ecstasy and a painting of a naked man riding a bull, to support his contention that “the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity, and normalize vulgar language. If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in. I think we need to relook at the entire curriculum.”
For more details, the transcript of the meeting is available here. If you are interested in seeing the panels from Maus that feature swearing and nudity2, Jane Coaston has posted most of them in a thread on Twitter (collected here). It’s all quite tame, and other than being graphically rendered its about the same level (if not less) of sex and foul language that’s found in an average work of Shakespeare.
There’s been a variety of fallout from this decision. As Mu Yixiao hoped in the threat, this widely covered story appears to have had a Streisand Effect with sales of Maus spiking. At the same time, some Tennessee lawmakers are setting their focus on banning all “obscene books” from school libraries. And, despite the fact that banning Maus may mean having to scrap their entire 8th-grade Holocaust module, the McMinn County School Board stands by its decision. They issued a statement reaffirming the decision that states in part:
One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn county Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a while, the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.”
At the end of the day, their position is these children are too young3 and vulnerable to be subjected to this work; the kids need to be protected. To that point, there’s one portion of the McMinn county deliberations that stuck out for me:
Board member Jonathan Pierce moved that Maus be removed from the curriculum, arguing that the violent words and actions portrayed would not be allowed on school grounds.” The wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies. If I said on the school bus that I was going to kill you, we would be bringing disciplinary action against that child.”
Beyond pointing out the absurdity of this argument (again, based on this the County should ban a wide amount of the Western Canon including most of Shakespeare’s plays), I want to focus on what can constitute “disciplinary action” against children in some places in Tennessee (and elsewhere in the US).
Less than a year ago, NPR and Pro Publica released an investigation into the use of police in schools in Rutherford County, Tennessee. A 5-minute version of the report can be listened to here (I encourage everyone to listen before continuing–my words are happy to wait). The pieces, in long and short form, tell the story of how 11 children were arrested, at school, after watching a fight that took place off of school grounds. Four of those children (a sixth-grader, two fourth-graders, and a third-grader) were later charged with “criminal responsibility”–failing to stop the fight–and held in juvenile detention for six days on that charge.
There was just one problem: there is no such statute on the books in Tenessee.
Beyond the seriousness of charging children with a crime that does not exist, let’s pause and take into account what those 11 children experienced. All were taken out of class, in front of their peers, by police in tactical gear. At least six of them were handcuffed. Then there are the six days and nights in juvenile detention. To call this a traumatizing experience is an understatement.
What makes it worse is it was all done in service of “helping” the children. As Pro Publica notes in the article:
Chrystal Templeton, the police officer investigating the video, wanted to arrest every kid who watched the fight and “get them all in front” of Davenport, she would say later during an internal police investigation. Charging them was helping them, Templeton believed, because “juvenile court is about rehabilitation.”
Templeton was a “school resource officer” (SRO)–a sworn law enforcement officer posted within a school tasked with preventing crime–more on SROs in a moment. Her position, that the function of juvenile court is to rehabilitate problem children is a common one. How arresting 11 children and placing four in pretrial detention for six days on a charge that did not exist would lead to their rehabilitation was never explained.
In the end, all charges against the children were dropped. Many of the officers involved, including Templeton, received disciplinary suspensions. Templeton’s suspension, three days, was just half the amount of time the children spent in juvenile detention. This was one of 15 suspensions she had over the career she was able to retire from.
Ultimately this reporting was about more than just that incident. In 2014, the last year Tennessee released public data on the jailing of children, 48% of children arrested in Rutherford County spent time in pretrial detention. The reporting explains how that was allowed to happen and how easily the juvenile justice system can be exploited. The reporting has led to calls for a Federal Investigation into the Rutherford County Juvenile legal system.
For my purposes, I want to point out that while Rutherford is an extreme outlier, in the same year it appears that five other counties jailed more than 20% of the children they arrested (the state average for that year was 5%). More than 10 appear to jail arrestees at a rate of 10% or higher.4
Trying to understand what is happening here brings us back to the use of SROs (School Resource Officers). While they had existed for decades, the myth of the super predator and later fear of school shootings has led to a rapid rise in the use of SROs across the United States, including in places like McMinn County (where they are part of the Sheriff’s office). Their goal is to make schools safer; to protect the children.
Strangely enough, literally placing police in schools seems to correlate with, get this, a national rise in juvenile arrest rates. To be fair, there is evidence that they lead to some decrease in non-gun-related violence in schools, but as a recent study has shown, that comes with a heavy price, intensifying the use of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students. The usage of those methods was consistently over two times larger for Black students than White students. This is before we get into the longer-term impacts of the school-to-prison pipeline.
What we see in these two cases from Tennessee is an example of our culture’s contradicting impulses when it comes to “protecting the children.” On the one hand, protecting the children means shielding them from any content that might cause them discomfort5 (even if it’s an accurate portrayal of historical events). The accurate historical violence of the Holocaust is just too much for children.
On the other hand, protecting the children means placing children in those same schools under surveillance and subjecting a subset of them to lived violent experiences that would be traumatizing for most adults. And beyond the (racialized) increase in in-school juvenile arrests and detention that accompanies SROs, there’s the mental and emotional impact of having armed law enforcement officers patrolling their schools (and in some cases arresting peers in front of you) from an early age.
To wrap things up, I want to return to one of the concerns that a McMinn school board member raised about Maus:
“If I was trying to indoctrinate somebody’s kids, this is how I would do it. You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in.”
Unfortunately, our culture tends to spend much more time focusing on the impact of kids soaking in “dangerous” content, rather than being concerned about what is being soaked up from early direct interactions with the juvenile criminal legal system.
- The “Poles as Pigs” is apparently a somewhat common critique of Maus. See this academic essay I found from the Toronto Polish Foundation’s website as an example.
- Hal_10000 pointed out on his twitter feed, this isn’t a the first time a conservative has objected to Holocaust material due to nudity. 1997 Tom Coburn attacked NBC for airing Schindlers List unedited. He was later made to apologize for it.
- While the removal of Maus from the 8th Grade curriculum is bad, the removal of it from all county schools is arguably worse. I take this to mean that its also banned at the High School level and I am assuming copies would be removed from the High School library. Stepping past the question of whether the book is appropriate for 8th graders, I have no patience for the idea that its too “adult” for students who, in some cases, are taking “college-level” AP courses not to mention are less than a year away for registering for military service. This infantilization of high schoolers is also, unfortunately, common. See, for example, Glenn Youngkin’s recent campaign ad suggersting that High School students in a, senior AP literature class are too fragile to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
- Just so I’m playing fair, I did check McMinn’s juvenile arrest and jailing rate for 2014. Given the size of the county, both numbers were too small to use for calculations.
- Language specifically shielding students from “discomfort” is increasingly becomging ensrined in much of the current legislation banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.