Walker, Dade review controversial book

Walker, Dade review controversial book

March 23rd, 2009 by Chloé Morrison in Georgia

LaFAYETTE, Ga. - After Catoosa County school officials pulled a teen memoir from library shelves, Walker County also removed "The Burn Journals" from LaFayette High School.

"We are currently reviewing it right now to see if it is appropriate for our media center," media specialist Cortney Asher said.

Dade County High School still has the book on shelves. Media specialist Carissa Henry said it has been checked out only once, and she's going to review it and decide if it should stay.

In "The Burn Journals," Brent Runyon describes what happened when, a depressed 14-year-old, he doused himself in gasoline and tried to burn himself to death. After suffering third-degree burns on 85 percent of his body, he spent the next year recovering and reflecting.

The book has sparked debate among parents and educators about the constitutionality of removing books from public school libraries.

There is a fine line between censorship and a school's responsibility to provide age-appropriate, educationally-suitable material, Northwest Georgia media specialists said.

"I guess when it comes to issues like that I'm torn," Mrs. Henry said. "I want to support intellectual freedom, but at the same time I also have to use common sense and consider what the parents of our students would be comfortable with."


Media specialists with Catoosa County Schools will meet this week and discuss creating a more consistent procedure for selecting books.


In 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court split 4-4 over school boards' right to remove books from libraries.

In Pico, N.Y., a school board took nine books from the high school library including "Slaughterhouse Five," "Go Ask Alice" and "Best Short Stories by Negro Writers."

At the Supreme Court, four justices said the board's actions violated students' First Amendment rights. Four held that school boards could remove books for any reason. Justice Byron White abstained and the case was sent back to lower courts without a high court ruling.

The controversy prompted Catoosa County officials to create a new procedure for vetting school library books.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 declined to overrule a lower court ruling that it is unconstitutional for public school boards to remove books from a school library simply because members disagree with the ideas expressed in them.

Some Catoosa County educators cite this case when arguing that "The Burn Journals" should be kept in the library and allowed for checkout with parent approval.

But University of Georgia constitutional law professor Sonja West said the authority of schools to remove books is an "unsettled area of law." She said the decision in the Supreme Court case, Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico, was "splintered and ambiguous."

"Because five justices did not agree one way or the other on the issue, the court's decision is of questionable precedential value," Mrs. West said in an e-mail. "In other cases the court has said that schools can take into account the age and maturity of students when deciding whether to expose them to potentially sensitive topics."

In the Pico ruling, four justices concluded that school officials can remove books if they are "pervasively vulgar" or educationally unsuitable, Mrs. West said.

Catoosa County administrators said there was sufficient evidence to remove "The Burn Journals" based on suitability for the age and grade level.

Complaints about the book came from middle school parents, but Catoosa County school officials still removed the book from the high schools.

Mrs. Asher said teens are the most difficult age group to choose books for.

"I came from elementary school and that has been my biggest challenge - finding material that students can relate to but that is appropriate for a high school setting," she said.