Book Binds

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There is, some observers say, a subtle and deep-seated legacy of mistrust and trepidation that has had a lasting impact on schooling here.

There are no visible scars from the bomb that ripped through a darkened classroom at Midway Elementary School here a quarter-century ago. Evidence of the dynamite and pipe bombs left in and around several other Kanawha County schools, and of the bullets that hit school buses and police cars, is also gone. The threatening phone calls, too, are all part of the painful past for the educators targeted by protesters in one of the largest and most violent textbook controversies in the nation's history. In fact, just about everything in this 30,000-student district appears to have gotten back to normal years ago.

But as the community learned when friends and relations turned against each other in the conflict over what and how students should be taught, not everything is as it appears. Though the name-calling has ceased and the fear subsided, all is not forgotten.

Periodic aftershocks from the dramatic events of the fall of 1974—when protesters shut down schools and coal mines in an effort to censor what they said were "dirty" and "godless" texts—still ripple through the ranks of teachers, administrators, and residents in the West Virginia capital and in the county's rural hollows and valleys.

Throughout the years, those aftershocks have shaken the community in debates over sex education and drug-prevention programs. They've rattled teachers each time they prepared to cover potentially controversial passages in classic or modern literature. And they've unsettled textbook committees intent on selecting high-quality and up- to-date instructional materials without offending the sensibilities of various religious and parental factions in the county.

In smaller ways as well, the tumultuous history of the Kanawha County public schools is omnipresent. There is, some observers say, a subtle and deep-seated legacy of mistrust and trepidation that has had a lasting impact on schooling here.

"Anybody our age who went through that, whether you know it consciously or not, whenever you look at your materials or use supplemental materials, you [think about] the book-burning era," says Tom Fisher, a 27-year classroom veteran who now teaches at Marmet Elementary School in the county's eastern end, near the center of the turmoil. "There are some things I used to teach back then that I'd be nailed to the cross for now."

On the silver anniversary of "the Storm in the Mountains," as a book on the strife called it, an undercurrent of caution persists in the school board chambers, the central office, and the classroom that some people say stifles innovation and coaxes too many teachers down the path of least resistance.

For many school veterans, the current debate is reminiscent of the dark days.

The latest wave of contention started this past fall—and is expected to continue this spring with the selection of science textbooks—with a proposal backed by religious conservatives to allow teachers to point out for their students perceived flaws in evolutionary theory and evidence supporting creation by a superior being. The school board rejected the proposal last month, citing a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting the teaching of creationism and the board's own subsequent policy on the issue. Proponents of the measure, which does not explicitly call for introducing creationist theories, have vowed to keep the pressure on.

For many school veterans, the current debate is reminiscent of the dark days. People are taking sides, emotions are flaring, the most extreme voices are shouting the loudest, and religious leaders are sermonizing about the evils of an education that ignores what is written in the Bible.

While most observers doubt that any issue could erupt into hatred and violence in the way the textbook battles did so many years ago, some are holding their breath, fearful that a confluence of factors could again inspire residents to launch a full-scale war against their schools.

"I don't think it could happen again," says Mary Lou Myers, a language arts teacher at the new Riverside High School in the county's once-volatile eastern end. Myers remembers the derogatory signs that picketers waved at her as guards escorted her to school. "But if they can find one person to stir the pot and people listen ..."

Nearly 30 years ago, a frustrated and disenfranchised rural community found such leadership in Alice Moore, a Tennessee native and newcomer to the area. "Sweet Alice," as she came to be called, grew alarmed after seeing the instructional materials that were being proposed for the district's sex education program. In the view of the 29-year-old preacher's wife, who had four small children, some of the materials were "pornographic" and "inappropriate for classroom use." The genesis of her now-famous, and infamous, crusade was in 1970, as Moore recalls, when school board members ignored her complaints about the materials, saying they trusted the judgment of the district administrators who approved them. Moore was incredulous.

"The board at the time was only concerned with the physical end of things, like finances. When parents were concerned about what their children were being taught, they couldn't get any response from the board of education," Moore says. "The administrators weren't concerned too much about what parents thought either."

When school board elections rolled around that fall, Moore was persuaded to run by community leaders who believed she would more closely monitor what was being taught and hoped that she could help parents gain a stronger voice in district decisions. Moore—described as attractive and articulate—had little formal education beyond high school, but possessed the conservative insight that rural residents yearned for.

"People resented the intellectual snobbery of the board and the attitude that the public was too ignorant or too religiously motivated to have a say," says Karl Priest, a middle school science teacher who supported Moore.

Though mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, the 210,000 residents of Kanawha County have long been divided by social and cultural differences, reflecting a diversity of wealth, education, and worldview. The city of Charleston was the haven for white-collar residents and, by the 1970s, for more liberal-minded newcomers. The farthest reaches of the county, where the valley narrows and the hollows become more isolated, are home to poor and poorly educated Appalachian communities, where residents rely on coal mines and factories, and their faith in God.

Those rural residents came together to support Moore and wrest some political power from the wealthier and more sophisticated metropolitan area. In a surprise upset of the incumbent, Moore won the election, and soon became one of the school board's most outspoken and diligent members. It wasn't until three years later, however, that she started on her way to becoming a legendary figure in Kanawha County history.

That's when she made it onto the television networks and into national magazines and the likes of The New York Times. Sympathetic composers started writing folk songs about her and the ministers who took up the cause. Typical was this verse from "Ballad of Kanawha County" by Mary Rose (alias):

"Sweet Alice, Little Avis, Graley,
Quigley, Horan
What are you doin' in them
mountains stirrin' up a storm?
Don't you know you're rousin'
people 'round the U.S.A.,
Tellin' folks right from wrong and
God-fearin' ways?"

In April 1974, Moore started scrutinizing some 325 English/language arts texts that the district's administration had approved for adoption. She was appalled by what she interpreted as anti-Christian and anti-American themes and the preponderance of foul language, inappropriate English usage, and morally relativist messages in the stories.

After marking passages and sections she found offensive, Moore took books by the armful to public libraries, churches, and community gatherings and asked people to react. She read one of the offending stories on a local television station, but only after the station issued a warning that the subject matter might be inappropriate for children.

The new textbooks were intended to expose children in the isolated Appalachian region to other cultures and new ideas, as outlined in the state's new policy that called for instructional materials to include more diversity. Following a national trend sparked by the civil rights movement, the new generation of textbooks included stories and poems by and about African-Americans and other minorities and fables that stressed tolerance and acceptance of a variety of traditions and cultures.

They also featured some progressive teaching techniques, such as role-playing and followup questions that encouraged critical thinking.

And so, when objections were raised, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society joined the campaign, supporters of the new books chalked the movement up to racism and fear of progress. Moore countered that the diversity the books promoted was itself racist, with portrayals of blacks as inner- city delinquents. In other instances, she objected to the exercises at the end of each unit. One such exercise asked children to compare the tale of Androcles and the lion to the biblical story of Daniel in the lion's den, which she believed implied that the latter was also fiction.

The community's reaction was swift and harsh. Hundreds of residents from the rural fringes of the county crammed into a board meeting to oppose the books.

By the time school was to start in September of that year, thousands of people had railed against the board's decision to ignore the criticism and adopt the texts pending a review. More than 45,000, or three-fourths, of the district's students at the time did not report to school because of their parents' fury or fear over the matter.

The events that unfolded over the next three months became more and more sensational.

Coal miners in at least five counties called a wildcat strike to show their support for the textbook opponents. U.S. marshals were called to break picket lines and arrest errant protesters. Fisher, and Vollie Older, now a principal at Marmet, helped lead 1,000 teachers and textbook supporters on a march through downtown Charleston to demand intellecual freedom. The books were removed pending a second review. A frightened school bus employee shot at a group of picketers and then was severely beaten by the crowd. One demonstrator's car was set on fire. Teachers received death threats. District administrators were physically attacked. A local minister asked the public to pray for the death of school board members. Bombs started going off.

By January 1975, half a dozen ministers and others had been indicted for the bombings, in which no one was killed. Several went to prison for their roles.

Throughout the fall of 1974, teachers felt as if they were under siege for supporting the books and for crossing picket lines. Many needed escorts to make their way past angry crowds that gathered daily on school grounds. They received threats at home. They kept the blinds drawn in their classrooms to prevent potential snipers from targeting them. And they became much more careful about what they said and what they taught.

You didn't teach anything that had a religious connotation, or anything that could be perceived as having a sexual connotation," says Mickey Grounds, who taught in the most rural part of the county, where she had grown up. "You had to be very careful how you presented yourself and how you related to parents."

Discretion, they say, is still an essential skill.

For several years, caution ruled the classroom. Many teachers stopped teaching classics by John Steinbeck and Mark Twain. Dozens of parents requested that their children be taught in separate classes and without use of the targeted textbooks, most of which had been returned to schools. Teachers and administrators began scrutinizing all textbooks and library books, automatically removing anything that had curse words or other questionable content. Even materials for subjects like mathematics and music, which had generally been immune from moral judgments, were searched. The administration, some observers say, became intent on quelling any potential dispute well before it ignited, and turned gun- shy when tough decisions had to be made. "The school system is still suffering the pangs of that era," asserts Paul Leary, an education professor at Marshall University Graduate College in South Charleston who served on the Kanawha County school board for six years beginning in 1979. "They are terribly sensitive to public opinion ... and they are still fighting this issue of what can you teach and under what circumstances."

Researchers and writers who have documented the conflict say there was a broader backlash, as other rural communities in West Virginia and elsewhere drew inspiration from Kanawha and launched their own protests. Textbook publishers, they say, also took note and became much more careful about what went into their books. At least one of the reading series that were condemned in West Virginia—Houghton Mifflin's Interaction—quickly went out of print. In Kanawha County, a climate of mistrust was created, says Jorea Marple, who served as the district superintendent until she resigned last year under continuing pressure from some board members who disapproved of her management of the system. That climate has claimed more than a dozen superintendents and numerous other administrators and teachers over the past 25 years. According to some teachers, it has also erected a barrier between the schools and the communities they serve.

Discretion, they say, is still an essential skill.

"I still feel like I'm being watched over," says Linda Hoffman, a 2nd grade teacher at Marmet Elementary. "There are still people in this town who distrust us."

Hoffman recalls that several years ago, when she was teaching health, district officials ordered that two systems of the human body be cut out of the curriculum. "I was no longer allowed to teach the excretory system and the reproductive system," she says. "The parental voice has gotten louder than the teacher's voice."

Earlier this school year, a counselor at the school froze during a lesson when a student asked about masturbation.

Like Hoffman, many other teachers still think twice about what they teach. Even those who deny a continuing influence are quick to say their comments are off the record, or ask to strike comments they realize could be misconstrued.

Other veteran educators, however, say that the memories have long since faded, and that the long-ago events have little influence on them today.

"I don't find any interference with what we teach," says John Clendenen, the principal of Capital High School in Charleston and a 35-year veteran of the system. "I don't feel pressure to screen everything we use, and I don't think teachers feel any pressure."

His wife, Patricia Clendenen, who teaches English at Elkview Middle School, agrees.

"My life was threatened," she says, but that hasn't stopped her. She often pauses during an interview to quote the Bible passages that helped her through the crisis. "Parents still object to The Diary of Anne Frank, but I still teach it."

Priest, the middle school teacher, says claims of intimidation are nonsense.

"People who are left-wingers will tell you they shudder in fear," says Priest, who pressed for the current evolution proposal, then showed up at a board meeting last month wearing an ape mask to mock his opponents. "I never felt any fear or pressure."

But Perry Bryant, the local representative for the West Virginia Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says that teachers everywhere—in West Virginia and beyond—have become increasingly cautious in the classroom, afraid of offending students and parents.

John Clendenen, who served only a few weeks as Kanawha County superintendent last year before reclaiming his post at Capital High, acknowledges some remnants of the past. Still, he says, the link to the events of 1974 are often not clear-cut.

"A lot of things occur today, and people don't even know why," he says. "But they came out of the textbook controversy."

Textbook-screening committees, for instance, in which parents and community groups are represented, are required before the board adopts books for the classroom. Residents also get a say on local improvement councils, state-mandated groups at each school made up of parents and teachers that meets regularly to discuss school issues. Though such councils have become fairly common throughout the country, here they have come to symbolize the rights won by parents in the battle over textbooks.

The composition and demeanor of the Kanawha County school board also changed. Board members before the 1970s generally served their terms quietly, rarely questioning the recommendations of district personnel.

"When I started teaching, board members were public servants who gave generously of their time to help set policies," John Clendenen says. "Today, they are the most recognized individuals in the political system. They became candidates running for their own cause or for special-interest groups."

To that end, nearly every superintendent since the mid-1970s has been encouraged to leave.

Pete Thaw, who has been on the board since 1998, ran on a platform of removing Marple, then the superintendent, and other administrators. Nearly a dozen top officials have left the system in the past 18 months.

"I never saw a resignation I didn't like," says Thaw, who has vowed to cut all positions he deems superfluous. "We cut $700,000 worth of central-office administrators ... and we haven't missed a one yet."

The result, critics say, is that the remaining district officials are carrying too heavy a burden. The personnel director, for instance, is also now in charge of maintenance and several other areas of school operations.

Thaw calls that efficiency. "We had an ... assistant superintendent for this and an assistant super for that. They were just falling all over each other, and they still are," he says. "The party's over for people who had a big job but did no work."

The director of maintenance left after board member Betty Jarvis publicly accused him of the deaths of several cancer-stricken children, saying he had failed to adequately monitor air quality in the schools.

In the last of her five years at the helm, Marple was required to attend more than 90 board meetings, many of them to discuss organizational minutiae, she claims. She and a handful of other former and current officials have a grievance pending with the county that charges the board with harassment.

Such combative interactions aren't reserved for private board discussions. Shouting matches, speakers out of order, spectators in costume, and other distractions and disruptions have been known to consume board meetings. Administrators are publicly chastised for what a board member might deem poor judgment or shoddy work.

Critics say that micromanagers on the board are more concerned with such trivial issues as how much cheese should be served on pizza in school cafeterias than with the quality of the academic program. Some influential board members, they say, have failed to embrace the importance of recruiting good teachers as the system braces for the retirement of more than half its teaching corps over the next five years. The critics also complain that board members do not understand the importance of professional development for teachers. And board members balk at spending money on such innovative fare as the International Baccalaureate program and school- to-work efforts.

Schooling in the Kanawha Valley—once a beacon in the movement toward a more progressive era in education and the recipient of several national awards—was stalled 25 years ago, some longtime educators say, and has never fully recovered.

That assessment, though, is far from universal.

No fan of the board, Marple nonetheless points to the progress made in the past five years or so as proof that the system is starting to regain some of its lost glory.

In the 1997-98 school year, test scores at most grade levels, including students' results on the SAT college-entrance exam, improved significantly. Hundreds of high school students began earning college credit for dual-enrollment courses. All 88 schools had Internet access. Music and art programs were expanded. And nearly four dozen staff members received national or state awards for their achievements. A state-of-the-art high school, complete with a bank, health clinic, and public library that provide school-to-work experience for students, opened this school year in the county's eastern end.

Ron Duerring, who took over as the superintendent at the start of the 1998-99 school year, describes Kanawha as a progressive school system, but one with challenges. A rapidly declining student population has embroiled the system and various communities in a debate over consolidation. Student achievement is lacking in many areas. And budget cuts are coming at a time when the system is trying to increase its counseling and health services.

But the district is welcoming innovation, Duerring says. Schools have begun programs on multiculturalism and character education—subjects that would have been far too sensitive even a decade ago. They are revamping the curriculum to meet the state instructional goals, standardizing high school requirements, and raising academic standards.

With more and more new teachers coming into the system, many of them unaware of the district's past tumult, the undertones of fear are expected to fade.

By most accounts, the system does seem to be moving on.

So when the recent murmurs started over evolution and creationism, a shudder went through many educators and residents who saw the proposal as another attempt by a vocal and fanatical minority to impose its beliefs on the schools.

Kanawha residents are still questioning what is being taught and pushing to have their values reflected in the curriculum.

But board member Jarvis, a retired teacher who refused to take sides in the historic textbook flap, threw her support behind last fall's proposed resolution. The school system should not automatically dismiss such requests, says Jarvis, who has been called the Alice Moore of the 1990s.

"You have to learn to listen to people and let them have their say," says Jarvis. "As we learned before, when you shut somebody down, they can explode."

Besides, says Jarvis, the proponents of the resolution had a lot of support, despite its 4-1 defeat. At least one other board member favored the resolution, but voted against it for fear of triggering a costly lawsuit.

After conducting his own informal survey of science teachers in the county, Priest has concluded that most teachers back the measure. He also points to a 1999 Gallup Poll that found that more than two-thirds of Americans favor the teaching of creationism, along with evolution, in public schools.

News that Kanawha residents are still questioning what is being taught and pushing to have their values reflected in the curriculum pleases Alice Moore. Now in her late 50s, she runs a school fund-raising company out of her home near Memphis, Tenn.

"I've wondered myself at times if my efforts were worthwhile," she says. "But then I read recently ... that the people who disagreed with me greatly are still bemoaning that what I did ruined the schools [by allowing parents to have a greater say in school matters]. So we must have done something right."

Vol. 19, Issue 17, Pages 29-33

Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Book Binds
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