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A Kansas school district won't remove the Bible despite a challenge over its mature themes

KCUR 89.3

WICHITA, Kansas — A Derby school district committee decided not to remove the Bible from libraries or classrooms despite a challenge that the book contains mature themes.

Cheryl Bannon, a former member of the Derby City Council, asked the district’s library committee to review the Bible after the group decided to remove an award-winning young-adult novel from its list of approved classroom materials.

Bannon said she filed her challenge to illustrate the consequences of censorship. The Bible is used as a textbook in Derby High School’s “Bible as Literature” course, a one-semester elective.

Pointing to verses about murder, masturbation, genocide, incest and other mature topics, Bannon argued that the religious text is just as provocative as some contemporary works.

Derby’s library committee removed Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from classrooms and middle-school libraries in February, citing profanity, sexual themes and slurs related to mental disabilities.

The 12-member library committee met for nearly two hours last week and opted not to remove the Biblical literature elective or its materials. Officials said various editions of the Bible also have been donated to school libraries and remain on shelves.

Ed Belsan, who teaches the Bible course and serves on the library committee, said the class focuses on the influence of the Bible as one of the foundational writings of Western literature. Similarly, students in other courses learn about Greek and Roman mythology.

“If nothing else, they get exposed to a great book that far too many people have very strong opinions about and have never read,” Belsan said. “That’s true of so many banned books.”

Belsan said his students are assigned to read only 149 of the Bible’s more than 1,100 chapters. The course includes some violent passages, such as the story of Cain and Abel. He said the majority of verses cited in Bannon’s challenge aren’t covered in the course.

“I don’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing controversial in there. That would be a misrepresentation,” he said.

“Even ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is controversial because of the suicide. But what I tell the kids on Day One is, ‘Don’t follow these guys. They’re a terrible example.’ The story is about families and conflict.”

Committee member Kristin Sen said removing the Alexie novel may have been a mistake because lots of books have mature content.

“It seems like one person initiated this whole process, and now here we are,” she said. “And … it’s a slidey slope. Where does it end?”

Sen, who also serves on the Derby Public Library’s board of trustees, said the committee should be consistent when reviewing books and should keep the whole district in mind.

“We’re kind of heavily leaning on the parent that’s objecting, but we’re not thinking about the group of parents that are saying, ‘No. … This is a good book and needs to be taught in a classroom setting,’” she said. “There are parents who want their child to go out in the world with this experience and this education.”

Holly Putnam-Jackson, assistant superintendent of curriculum, told the committee that the district’s legal team had cautioned against labeling books as explicit or asking parents to pre-approve them.

District policy allows parents to opt their child out of any book or lesson they find objectionable. In such cases, students are given an alternate assignment.

Bannon, who submitted the challenge, said she doesn’t plan to appeal the decision.

“I just wanted the parents and board members and faculty who make these decisions to see that mature themes run through lots of books, including the Bible,” she said.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Copyright 2022 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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