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The Scarborough Superintendent on Thursday apologized for a decision by district administrators last week to remove a book about children with physical and emotional differences from the seventh grade curriculum, saying the district had failed to respect its material dispute policy.

Carrigain Rowan, 13, and his mother, Erin Rowan, seen at their Scarborough home on Thursday, have advocated for the removal of ‘Freak the Mighty’ from the seventh-year program, saying they disagreed with the language of the book and that its Themes perpetuate stereotypes about people with disabilities. Brianna Soukup / Staff Photographer

“The decision by the administrators involved was to withdraw the book as a class novel this spring until further consideration can take place,” Superintendent Sanford Prince said in a letter to the community. “At no time was the book banned from student access or permanently removed from the program. In retrospect, it is clear that not continuing with the book was a mistake on the part of the administrators involved. ”

The district decided to remove the book “Freak the Mighty” from the current seventh-grade English curriculum at Scarborough Middle School last week after a parent, Erin Rowan, and her daughter Carrigain objected to its use. They disagreed with the use of the word “retard” in the book and said its themes perpetuated stereotypes about people with disabilities. Carrigain has Down syndrome and his teacher has contacted Rowan to ask if they would be comfortable with the book being taught.

After Rowan expressed her concerns, she said the administrators held a meeting with the seventh grade English teachers and told her they would work to ensure that teaching the book did not contribute to any problems. negative stereotypes or would not create harm. But Rowan said she didn’t want the book taught to students.

“It’s not just about Carrigain’s personal feelings, but also that her peers will learn inaccurate lessons about disability that will impact their future interactions with her and other students and community members,” she wrote in an email to the school administrators.

Last Monday, Carrigain emailed college students to talk about her experience with ableism, which is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, and her opposition to the book and asking her peers for support. She also boycotted her English class last Tuesday, after which the district’s director of programs, Monique Culbertson, emailed her mother asking for an appointment. During the meeting, Rowan said he was told the book would no longer be used.

“Thanks to everyone who helped publicize Carrigain’s protest,” she wrote in a post on Facebook after the meeting. “We had a meeting with the school administrators today, and they are removing ‘Freak the Mighty’ from the program = immediately and permanently. Our work around the issue of curriculum violence (including, but not limited to ableism) has only just begun, but this victory is definitely worth celebrating! “

However, Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, president of the Scarborough Education Association, said the teachers’ union opposed the administration’s decision. “The Scarborough Education Association is very concerned that the district has not followed its own IJJ policy, which specifically outlines the steps for any individual or group to challenge the program materials, ”said Ash-Cuthbert. “This procedure creates a neutral assessment process that requires careful consideration before such a harsh decision is made. All educators have valid and solid reasons why the books they choose for a class are chosen and (we believe) that academic integrity and intellectual freedom are at stake here.

Ash-Cuthbert said seventh-grade English teachers didn’t think the book should be taken down and were vilified in emails and on social media. They thought the book was about two children who together are stronger and proved to the world that children with disabilities are strong and powerful. Ash-Cuthbert said the union wanted the book reinstated and asked the school board to rectify the situation. Individual English teachers, through the union, declined to comment.

“Freak the Mighty” is published by Scholastic, one of the largest publishers of children’s literature, and the book’s author, Rodman Philbrick, said it has been read in hundreds of school systems since it was first published. in 1993. The book is based on the friendship of two boys, Max and Kevin, who live in the same neighborhood and go on an adventure together.

Rodman Philbrick’s “Freak the Mighty” depicts the friendship between two boys, one of whom is disabled and walks on crutches and the other who has a learning disability. Philbrick defended the book, which was published in 1993, and its use of the word “delay,” saying it “doesn’t try to clean up the language used on the streets and in the playgrounds. … I can’t do this and I have an edited world. It becomes a fantasy rather than reality.

Kevin has a genetic condition that requires him to walk on crutches. The disease is not named in the book, but Philbrick said the character was inspired by a boy he knew who had Morquio syndrome, a genetic condition that affects children’s bones, organs and physical abilities. The other character, Max, comes from a troubled background and takes classes for the disabled. Kevin, who has a congenital heart problem, dies near the end of the novel, but his death inspires Max to write a book about their transformative friendship.

Philbrick, who was unaware that Scarborough schools had stopped using the book, defended its use and said his intention was to support, not denigrate, different people. “I’m sorry that parents feel this way,” Philbrick said. “They are simply wrong. That’s all. If they want their daughter to be exempted so that she does not have to read it, that is in their right, but denying other students the opportunity to read it is almost censorship.

Philbrick has published over a dozen books for young readers and was recently awarded the 2020 Katahdin Award from the Maine Library Association, which recognizes an outstanding body of work in children’s literature in Maine.

He said the book uses the word “retard,” but it reflects the language children use on playgrounds and at school. In an example from the book, Philbrick said that one of the characters was taunted and called “retarded” for having trouble reading. “I write very realistic novels and I’m not going to clean the tongue,” Philbrick said. “I don’t use bad words or anything like that, but to try to clean up the language that is used on the streets and in the playgrounds. … I can’t do this and I have an edited world. It becomes a fantasy rather than reality.

In his letter On Thursday, Prince said the district should have followed IJJ policy, which calls for the appointment of a five-person committee to review the disputed documents and decide whether they should be removed from the program.

“I want to recognize that throughout all of this the teachers involved have demonstrated the highest level of professionalism and sensitivity,” Prince said. “They were put in an unfortunate situation because the policy was ignored. Their openness and willingness to do what is best for the students is to be commended.

“They moved on very quickly and started to work on identifying a new text and, using their creative energies, developed a new teaching unit in a very short time, all of this in the middle. of an incredibly difficult school. year, with only six weeks remaining, and limited time to redesign a unit. Scarborough is fortunate to have these teachers with such a level of commitment.

In an interview, Prince said the district is in the process of forming the committee called for in politics and will determine whether the book will be used in the years to come. “In these situations, when someone has come forward and thinks the book is controversial, it is important to listen to that person, whoever they are, be it the public or anyone in the neighborhood.” , Prince said. “In this situation, I think we should have jumped right into politics and formed this committee because that’s what politics says.”

Prince declined to say whether the directors who made the decision to withdraw the book were sanctioned and said he should check with legal counsel before appointing the directors who made the decision. Rowan said she was informed of the decision by Culbertson, the director of the program, and Kathy Tirrell, the director of the college. Tirrell deferred to Prince for comment, while Culbertson did not respond to an email or message left at his office on Thursday.

Rowan said she was surprised and disheartened to learn on Thursday that the decision would be seen as a challenge for the program and that the committee would be formed. Over the past few years, she said she has spent time building collaborative relationships with directors due to her daughter’s disability and that it was not unusual for them to ask her for comments or feedback. resources.

“I just thought it was like any other time and that it was a time where I would provide them with resources when they asked me a question,” she said. “And then it just continued to evolve. The moment they brought up the challenge of the program, I was shocked by that.”

She said the issue is not just about her and her daughter, but rather a culture that does not understand the history and struggles of the disabled community. “I don’t expect to change all systemic issues, but when something like this is so blatantly blatant, I expect to be listened to without spending 40 hours of work in my free time to convince them of something. which was clearly obvious to them before they started because they emailed to say, “Can I do this book with Carrigain in class?” »», She declared. “Take a minute. You knew this was a problem.

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