New Rochelle Closes Book on “Girl, Interrupted” Censorship Crisis; “Time to Move On”

Written By: Robert Cox

The crisis over the censorship of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir “Girl, Interrupted” ended yesterday when the school board formally acknowledged the serious nature of the “lapse in judgement” which led to pages being torn from dozens of copies of the book. The books have all now been replaced with new, unexpurgated copies. At an unusually crowded school board meeting, a series of public speakers including students, teachers, parents, as well as, the president of the local teachers union, the president of the high school PTA, and a likely candidate for the upcoming school board elections all roundly condemned the decision to censor the book, expressed regret for the unfortunate incident with many declaring it was time to move on.

Superintendent Richard Organisciak read a series of three official statements from the board, his own office and the English department at New Rochelle High School. Video follows:

NOTE: I shot video of each speaker and as I get time I will do my best to post the video clips of each speaker.

3 thoughts on “New Rochelle Closes Book on “Girl, Interrupted” Censorship Crisis; “Time to Move On””

  1. Are the Board of Education
    Are the Board of Education meetings finally going to be recorded and televised?

    1. Lack of Transparency . . . .
      Lack of Transparency . . . .

      The Board of Education makes audio recordings of its public meetings but those recordings are not made published or broadcast. Since October I have been filing FOIL requests for these and other public records maintained by the District. I recently requested an explanation of how the recordings are made/stored to determine the best way to obtain them so that they can be published on Talk of the Sound.

      At some point the District would do well to consider reversing its current handling of public records and embrace transparency and openness. It should not be necessary, in my opinion, for a resident of New Rochelle (or any member of the public) to have to file a FOIL request to obtain copies of documents that are presented at public board meetings such as “goals and objectives” statements from school principals and department heads, slideshow presentations on various district initiatives or other public material, especially when these records exist in electronic form. Yet, direct requests to the district for such documents are simply ignored thus requiring the filing of FOIL requests.

      The District has a very nice web site with software that is well-suited to creating a page for every board meeting where they can upload the original electronic documents (not PDF files which are generally not “searchable”), podcasts and other related information. In fact, the School Board could have its own blog within the NRED site where this information could be published and board members could interact with the public when the board is not meeting. The cost of doing this would be minimal and will likely be made up for in reducing the cost of complying with FOIL requests for these types of public records. I would like to see the board adopt a resolution requiring that any document presented, read, voted on or otherwise made part of a public board meeting be uploaded to the District web site, where ever possible BEFORE the meeting, in cases of resolutions at least a week before so the public can evaluate them before the meeting. Likewise, no resolution should be voted on until after the first public comment period after the resolution is made available on the web site so that the public might be heard on a resolution before the board votes.

      In my experience, the school board is strongly opposed to transparency and openness and is not terribly eager to comply with Freedom of Information laws. In fact, they have been in violation of the state law for quite some time in many different ways.

      Consider that in the week before the school district issued its public statements last Wednesday, I sent more than a dozen emails to the district challenging the appropriateness of using the expurgated book, requesting a copy of the district’s policy on book selection and book challenge and otherwise criticizing the district’s use of the book with pages intentionally torn out. Except for Ms. Altschul’s initial reply in which she DEFENDED the act of ripping out the pages, my requests were ignored. This came after students in the film class questioned the use of the bowdlerized book.

      Instead, more than two weeks after complaints were first made and only after their public statements had been widely reported in the press, and only after those statements were read at the meeting did the district announce they were making the policies available to the public. At that time, we learned from Superintendent Organisciak on Tuesday night that the very same school board had approved a a new book challenge policy just three months earlier.

      Had those documents been available at the time “Girl, Interrupted” was distributed at the high school a few weeks ago the student who expressed a desire to challenge the use of the book in expurgated form might then have been able to determine that under the District policy, a student has the right to complete a book challenge form and demand a meeting with the Principal, or a designee, and the school librarian. Further that had the request been denied, the student had the right to appeal the matter to the Superintendent and then the board. Precisely this information – how the book challenge process worked – was requested many times including direct requests to the Superintendent Richard Organisciak. Each and every request was denied.

      In this case, the failure of the district to respond at the building level is a constructive denial and therefore, under the policy, the matter is to be referred to the Superintendent who is then required to appoint a committee. The Superintendent’s failure to do this constitutes a constructive denial of the appeal from the building. This, in turn, puts the matter to the board which simply ignored its own policy on book challenges.

      This gets to the real point of most district policies – they are to be used to rebuff complainants when it serves the interest of district officials and ignored when these same policies become “inconvenient”. As we are supposed to be a nation of laws not men (or women), this case serves to illustrate the oligarchical nature of the school board. It is, in fact, a dictatorship where the rule of law ceases to apply and policies are twisted to suit the interest of various power brokers within the community. It smacks, as one student alluded to on Tuesday night, of fascism. This is why, for example, hundreds of students each year are denied their 5th and 14th Amendment due process rights when facing disciplinary action – it would be “inconvenient” for the district to inform parents before a suspension of the district’s intent to suspend, or that the parents have a right to a hearing where they may question witnesses or that there is an appeals process.

      As in all good oligarchic states, control of information and communication is central and “heretics” must be silenced with threats, intimidation and retaliation. Anything that threatens the entrenched power must be put down and put down hard. In my case, by threatening me and my family, sending the police to my house, engaging in anonymous and defamatory name-calling, disclosing confidential information to wire service reporters in violation of state and federal privacy laws, and otherwise trying to “shoot the messenger” or “poison the well”. Fortunately for them, there are always plenty of willing accomplices, true believers, and apparatchiks, to come forward to rally in defense of the oligarchs

      If readers will take the time to compare the official statements in the video in this post to the book challenge policy you will see a classic “bait and switch”. In claiming to address the controversy, the Superintendent uses his time before the board to shift the focus away from the book challenge policy to the book selection policy which has never been at issue since this controversy first emerged in the public eye. To my knowledge, no one has stepped forward at this time to complain that the book was selected but only that students were being given crudely censored copies of the book. In others words, members of the City School District of New Rochelle community were seeking to challenge the appropriateness of using an crudely expurgated version of a book that everyone now agrees is appropriate for 12th grade students. Those challenges were repeatedly ignored until after the story became a news story.

      Having thus shifted attention away from the actual issue of disagreement (how was this book challenged in 2004? whether the same or a similar policy was followed in 2004? why what policy was not followed in 2008 when students and a parent complained about the expurgated book?) the apologists step forward to shift attention even further away, turning a valid criticism of the district’s failure to follow its own policies and the vulgar censorship of the book into a discussion of a strawman argument; New Rochelle teachers have been unfairly maligned. It is not then a big leap to the head of the teachers union stepping forward to turn that strawman argument on the alleged attacker (me) who for my supposedly evil purposes would dare to question the integrity of school teachers, the school district and even the United States of America. Seriously, I thought Martin Daly was going to break out into a rendition of that scene from Animal House.

      Of course, all of this helps take the discussion further and further away from the rather obvious question: If everyone agrees that this incident was so bad, and so out of keeping with the New Rochelle English department the how it could have possibly happened. See, if you start to ask that question then you take things in a direction the school district does not want to go because they know full well what happened. They also know if people in New Rochelle knew the details of the incident which precipitated the bowdlerization of the book or how certain outside groups brought pressure to force the school to act then you get into a whole set of issues that are extremely controversial, issues that the District knows would dwarf the most recent controversy, issues they will do anything to suppress. In fact, it is so bad that someone determined it was better to take the PR hit and acknowledge my story. Given that the PR hit was pretty bad, just consider then how bad the full version would have to be and you get a sense of why Don Conetta is claiming he has no way of knowing what really happened back in 2004. Puh-leeze! From the some of the public statements, it appears that Conetta was Assistant Principal at the time and would have had a direct role in the sort of serious disciplinary matter involved here.

      Despite this, the District has sought to convey the impression that the district took swift and decisive action as soon as they became aware of the issue. This is completely false. Superintendent Organisciak, who has been caught telling whoppers to The Journal News in the past, had the chutzpah to tell The Journal News the week AFTER he was first informed of the censorship, “This week was the first time we learned about this, to be honest with you”. Pretty sad. To be honest, Mr. Organisciak was being dishonest. Mr. Conetta told the same reporter the 12th grade film teacher “didn’t even know the pages were removed”. To be honest with you, that is not true either. The matter of the missing pages was raised in the class before I had even heard about the issue myself. It was discussed on more than one occasion in the class the week before my original story ran. Mr. Conetta also said “We really can’t determine exactly how this came about”. To be honest with you, this is not true either as we revealed on Tuesday. This sort of “honesty” is why the statements on the district web site are not dated but simply read “December 2008”. Why is that? Are the extra pixels required to put up the date “December 10, 2008” to expensive? No, one of the district’s favorite tricks is backdating documents and this is a form of that. As memories fade, the district will continue to push the claim that they responded with “swift, decisive action” when, in fact, they knew about the problem for more than a week and waited until two days after the story ran to respond. The statement also says the books will be replaced “immediately” but they were not replaced until a couple of days later. All in all, it was about 11 days from start to finish and the only point at which the district acted was when the story had been read by well over a million online readers of various blogs and news web sites.

      Readers might also note that despite the district’s claims to the contrary, there is a clear role for the Superintendent and the Board in the book challenge process. If the book challenge is denied at the building level the complainant has the right to appeal to the Superintendent.

      Readers will recall that board member David Lacher posted here a few days and made the following claims:

      …when you broke the story, you wrote that “the ultimate decision on whether to ban books rests with . . . the President of the School Board.”

      The full text of what I wrote is as follows:

      The ultimate decision on whether to ban books rests with Cindy Babcock-Deutsch, the President of the School Board. Babcock-Deutsch has a well-documented history of practicing censorship in her role as chairperson of board of education meetings. She has repeatedly asserted that “privacy laws” bar criticism of senior school administrators at school board meetings. More recently she has resorted to threats, interruptions and physical intimidation to silence critics at what are public meetings in public buildings.

      Except for my claim that the ultimate decision on book bans rests with the President of the School Board, Mr. Lacher does not dispute the rest because he knows full well what I have written is true.

      Lacher contines:

      You know that is patently not true. You have the right to be critical of any and all of us. You have the right to organize e-mail campaigns and any other forms of protest. But you also have an ethical responsibility to be truthful. Your story was not enhanced in any way by pointing the finger at the board president. Your story was potent enough with the fact that the thing happened. You did not have to juice it up with something that you know is not true. That is all I am saying. There is no argument that the Board of Education, as an elected body, has obligations and responsibilities and accountability to the entire community. But so, too, you have a responsibility as well.

      Lacher also claimed:

      The fact is, the Board did not know about it, did not condone it, does not endorse that kind of curriculum development, and will not permit it in the future. We ordered the books pulled immediately, and we directed that new books be purchased.

      False. False. And False. The fact actually is that the board was repeatedly informed of the problem with the book before my story ran and, as is typical of the board, declined to respond in any way. They only acted after my post was widely read and generated media attention.

      More falsehoods from Mr. Lacher, anyone who cares to read the policy that Mr. Lacher and the board approved just three months ago can see quite plainly that my description was entirely accurate.

      8. The Principal will notify the complainant of the decision. If the work is kept, the complainant shall be given an explanation. If the complainant is valid, the principal will acknowledge it and make recommended changes. If the complaint is not satisfied, the complaint may ask the Superintendent to present an appeal to the Board of Education, which shall make a final determination of the issue. The Board of Education may seek outside assistance in reaching its decision.

      As I said, the ultimate responsibility for book challenges rests with the school board. As she clearly explained Tuesday night, it is the Board President which calls meetings and sets the agenda for meetings. Had the district followed their own policies with regard to “Girl, Interrupted” there would have been an appeal made to the board at the end of that process. The appeal would be made at a board meeting convened by Ms. Babcock-Deutsche. She would be the one putting the appeal on the agenda. She would be the one to call the vote and declare the outcome. How is that not having the “ultimate responsibility”. Of course, in the world of the school district no one every seems to have or to take responsibility for anything. Case in point, who was to blame here? The District will not say. What occurred 4 years ago that led to the pages being torn our. The District says they “really can’t” figure out how this happened. Really? You REALLY can’t figure that out. Why not? Ms. Altschul said she is the one who did it. She still works for Conetta. Why not ask her! Seems like she might know why she sat down one day and shredded 50 copies of a book.

  2. Bravo, Mr. Cox.

    Bravo, Mr. Cox.

    Bravo. Let’s move on …

    I congratulate you on this post, which is absolutely objective and fair to the heart of this story. Thank you for reporting it straight-up … great journalism, as this is precisely what took place and this kind of detached and removed reporting is what is needed, no doubt, in our district …

    Again, happy holidays and best,

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