"Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

Before one of the biggest crowds in its history, the Westmont Hilltop School District board of directors declined on Thursday night to remove a controversial novel from the list of books students may opt to read as part of the district’s summer reading program.

Board members David Angeletti, Robert Gleason, Jeffrey Masterson, John Messina, Joseph Nibert and Rebecca Webb voted in favor of a motion to allow “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a 2003 mystery novel by Mark Haddon about a teenager with an autism-like disorder, to remain on the list.

Board members Lisa Drennen and Kamal Gella voted against that motion. The ninth and final member of the board, Malika Karunaratne, was not present for the vote.

According to a synopsis of the novel included in the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” focuses on Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who “perceives the world entirely literally” and who “lives on patterns, rules and a diagram kept in his pocket,” who sets out to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s dog’s murder in the style of his favorite fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Masterson, the president of the school board, said that each of the many complaints he’s received about the book fell into one or more of three categories – complaints about the foul language it contains, complaints that its profane use of God’s name offends Christian sensibilities and complaints that it includes a negative portrayal of a character with autism or a similar disorder.

While giving the report of the board’s curriculum committee, Drennen said that the committee did not recommend the approval of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and urged her fellow board members to remove the book from the reading list, condemning what she described as the “vulgarity” and “blasphemies” within its pages.

“If we, as a board, vote to pass this book, then we are condoning the book as a good choice for our students,” she said. “We, as a board, should not be labeling vulgarity and religious blasphemies as good. … If, in the (student) handbook, a student’s responsibility is to avoid indecent, obscene or inappropriate language … then why are we considering going directly against what we, as a school board, tell our students not to do?”

Gella, the other board member who voted against keeping the book on the list, said before the vote that he had “serious reservations” about the novel’s profane use of God’s name. He noted that the district is not “banning” the book by removing it from its summer reading list and added that parents who feel that their children should read the book can have them read it outside of school.

Webb said before the vote that schools “need to teach our students to grow and think critically, not to shelter them from what is different.”

“Regarding this text in particular,” she added, “I think that the value gained from understanding differences for this individual in particular far outweighs the language used.”

During a public comment period that lasted for nearly an hour, many district residents stepped up to the microphone to provide their thoughts on the novel. Masterson said the crowd of at least 75 was “the largest group we’ve had in recent memory” at a school board meeting.

Nine speakers, including Westmont Hilltop students Susan Williams, Moses Zeidan and Max Wilkinson, spoke in favor of allowing the book to remain on the list, while seven speakers, including school board candidate William Carney, favored removing it. Like Drennen, Carney and several other members of the latter group pointed out what they saw as a contradiction between the student handbook’s ban on profanity and the school board’s approval of a book that contains curse words.

Williams questioned the implication by several speakers that the book’s portrayal of characters who curse and engage in morally questionable behavior necessarily equals an endorsement of that behavior.

“All of the comments I’ve heard from the perspective of those that do want the book to be banned (are) implying that this book is encouraging children to swear,” she said, “but when you look at some of the most remarkable books in the history of our nation and nations around the world, the … ideas that they provoke are not ones that they encourage, but ones that they encourage you to think about – that they encourage you to acknowledge as part of our society.”

District resident Dave Davis said that representation of characters with autism is important, but asked why the district couldn’t find a book that incorporated such a perspective without also including what he saw as objectionable content.

“Autism is a very serious thing, and getting insights into that, I think, is wonderful, but does it have to be this book?” Davis said. “Aren’t there other books out there that can make the exact same points without having to add all this other garbage into it? … I just couldn’t get past using the Lord’s name in vain. Just couldn’t do it.”

The Very Rev. Mark Begly, pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church on Tioga Street, urged those who objected to the novel’s content to get involved with the student-focused discussion groups that will be held as part of the district’s summer reading program. Those who support the novel, too, should involve themselves in those discussions, he added.

“The issue here, in my mind, has nothing to do with censorship at all,” Begly said. “It has to do with guidance. How are we guiding and teaching our children how to engage with the world in which we live? Obviously, I’m a Christian, and I take my God very seriously, but if I just simply ban everything that’s going to be said about my God or about my faith, then I’m living in my own little, narrow world.”

Messina, one of the board members who voted to retain the book, said that the district is not forcing any student to read the book. He noted that students do not have to participate in the summer reading program; students who do participate in the program may opt to read a different book; and students who do opt to read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” must obtain a parent’s permission first.

However, district resident Dave Roman, who objected to what he saw as the school board “endors(ing) a book that takes my Lord’s name in vain,” argued that “the permission slip procedure is very flawed.”

“At the beginning of the school year,” he said, “I received a list of potential movies that may be shown in class. I indicated which movies I did not want my child to see. My decision was not honored. One of those movies was shown, and I was not notified. Permission slips also open up the door for kids to be bullied. Can you imagine the reaction of other students when your kid is taken out of an activity or dismissed from a movie because he’s not allowed to watch it?”

Before the vote, Thomas Mitchell, the district’s acting superintendent, attempted to strike a note of harmony between the two sides.

“When decisions are difficult and topics are controversial,” he said, “there is going to be disagreement, and it’s OK to disagree. … If we are going to be role models for our students and our community, we have to be able to debate openly and honestly, respect one another’s positions and move forward. This evening, as our emotions are stirred, it’s important to remember – there is more that we agree on than what we disagree on.”

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.