At a standing-room only school board meeting Monday night, parents voiced their concerns with a book that depicts rape and sexual assault, which is being taught in ninth-grade English classrooms in St. Michael-Albertville Schools.
A parent at the school board meeting said it’s not necessary for students to read a novel about sex in a high-school English class. He said he figured “stuff out just fine” on his own; he has 13 kids.
“Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a freshman high-school girl, Melinda, who is raped at an end-of-summer party but doesn’t speak up about what happened. She is then ostracized by her classmates.
Parents are concerned because the book contains graphic descriptions of rape and gives students no tools for dealing with it.
One parent, whose daughter was a victim of sexual assault, said she doesn’t know if her daughter “is going to be able to handle or process the material that’s in this book.”
Parents have been trying to get the book removed from the curriculum for at least six years, according to parent Michelle LeMonds. So far, they have only been able to get an opt-out option and require the school to notify parents before students read the book. Now, they want it removed from the curriculum altogether.
“Since parents submitted a formal challenge to the book, a committee made up of community members, a teacher, the principle, and the superintendent will review the material. After review, the committee will make a recommendation to the superintendent, who will then make a recommendation based on her own review of the material,” said Hollee Saville, a member of the school board.
Saville said the decision will most likely be appealed either way. In that case, the school board will make the final decision as to whether or not the book will be replaced.
Many parents feel the book is inappropriate, not just in Minnesota. It was fourth on the American Library Association’s list of “most challenged books” in 2020. Parents object to the book because they say it glorifies underage drinking and premarital sex, and some sections of the book can be classified as soft pornography. They say English class is not the place to discuss adult themes such as sexual assault and rape.
This is one of many passages from “Speak” parents take issue with:
“I was on the ground and he was on top of me. My lips mumble something about leaving, about a friend who needs me, about my parents worrying … His lips lock on mine and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. … I open my mouth to breath, to scream, and his hand covers it. … I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down and the ground smells wet and dark and NO!- … he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me gets up.”
LeMonds said most students in ninth grade have not even “had their first kiss, yet they are reading about forced penetration.”
“They’ve had no positive sexual experience, yet they’re being asked to discuss rape. For those that have experienced sexual trauma, this book is extremely harmful and STMA may never know the outcome of this trauma triggered in the classroom,” she said.
Students and parents at Monday’s meeting spoke for and against teaching the book.
Sexual assault happens and students need to learn how to speak about it, said Walter Hudson, a parent and Republican candidate for Minnesota House. At issue is whether or not the classroom should serve as “a therapy session,” he said.
“[The book] contains visceral depictions of sexual assault. It’s the study of rape with 15 year olds in a classroom. There’s no context in which that is appropriate,” Hudson said.
While most at the meeting were in favor of taking the book out of the curriculum, some defended its use.
A former student, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke in favor of teaching the book and recounted the story of her own sexual assault. She credited having read the book with giving her the fortitude to speak out.
“I am here as a victim of sexual assault, and I am speaking in favor of the book ‘Speak’ for our schools,” she said. “… I was sexually assaulted by my co-worker. I remembered the book ‘Speak’ and the discussion in class on why it is important to speak out when sexual assault takes place. From this book, I found courage and I reported what happened, but was silenced and fired.”
She called online opposition to the book “a stunt” by a Republican candidate running for office and said the issue should not be politicized.
“This is not a political issue. I’m a conservative Republican. I’m just telling my story. This is a personal issue for me, and I think it’s important students have an opportunity to read this book because it helped me,” she told Alpha News.
“I credit the book ‘Speak,’ the English teachers who chose it and taught it, and the discussions that were had in the classroom in ninth grade for the courage I had … when I shared my story and the courage I have to speak to all of you now,” she said during Monday’s meeting.
Another victim of sexual assault, who is opposed to the use of the book in the classroom and also asked to remain anonymous, said the book does not give students tools for dealing with trauma. “It’s hard enough for trained counselors to handle this. Teachers are certainly not equipped to deal with it,” she said.
Another former student said the book has no place in the classroom. Gretta Becker said she had a baseline understanding of what sexual assault was, but nothing prepared her for the explicit content in the book.
“I felt like it was presented to us so early in our high-school journey as if to be a means to desensitize us to the horrors of sexual assault and to allow us to think rape was a normal occurrence,” she said.
LeMonds said she and other parents are not working against their teachers, school board and administration.
“We don’t want anyone to think we hate our school,” she said. “We want to work with them to protect kids.”
Sheila Qualls is an award-winning journalist and former civilian editor of an Army newspaper. Prior to joining Alpha News, she was a Christian Marriage and Family columnist at Patheos.com and a personal coach. Her work has been published in The Upper Room, the MOPS blog, Grown and Flown, and The Christian Post. She speaks nationally on issues involving faith and family.