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School district comes under fire for opting out of Battle of the Books

The district decided not to compete in the Oregon Battle of the Books because of a novel in the competition, "George," about a transgender fourth-grader.

After a round of controversy surrounding the Cascade School District's decision to withdraw from Oregon Battle of the Books, Cascade superintendent Darin Drill said if a similar situation were to happen in the future, the district would involve parents in the decision.

The Cascade district came under fire when its elementary schools opted not to compete in the voluntary reading program due to a controversial title, George, involved in the competition.

The district's decision not to compete was made by four elementary school administrators in the district.

"If we have books in the future that are concerning and we don’t know what we’re going to do, we will involve parents in that decision," Drill said.

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The elementary schools in the Salem-Keizer School District will still participate in the competition, Director of Communications and Community Relations Lillian Govus said.

The novel George, written by Alex Gino, is about a transgender fourth grade student. It is a book aimed at a young adult audience.

Drill said the issue with the book was not to do with the transgender protagonist of the book.

“People want to make it about this transgender issue,” Drill said. “We have a couple of transgender kids in our high school and our staff do a great job of handling that.

“We have to have those conversations as we move forward, and we’ll get better at it. We’re happy to have it. All I have is the four of those administrators that said, this is not appropriate for children of this age.”

MORE: Cascade nixes participation in Oregon Battle of the Books over book about trans child

A petition on change.org to remove the book from the Oregon Battle of the Books received over 900 signatures in its first week. But a petition on the same site to reject banning the book from their schools received over 1,400 signatures in less time.

"We don’t feel that it’s an age-appropriate book for a variety of reasons, and more so than the transgender aspect, when they talk about dirty magazines and use the word porn," said Pete Cakebread, a parent of a Turner Elementary School second-grade student.

"For incoming third graders that could be as young as 7 years old, that’s really the inappropriate aspect of that book. A lot of them will be curious and then go try to look that word up and we all know what can happen on the internet when you type in that."

Turner Elementary School, Aumsville Elementary School and Cloverdale Elementary School will instead compete in a reading competition among themselves, Drill said, with books a librarian in the district chooses.

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Turner Elementary School principal Dan Petersen said his concern was scenes in the book where the protagonist discusses how to hide a web browser history and looks at a magazine with suggestive material.

“The topic of transgender is here, I understand that,” Petersen said. “Hopefully the parents are having developmentally appropriate conversations.

“I was hired to make sure that things that are in school are appropriate for all kids. My opinion was this was not a book that should be available to every child at that age.”

Petersen said Turner Elementary School had two teams of four children participate in the voluntary Oregon Battle of the Books competition last year.

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Even though Turner won’t participate this year, Petersen said he intends for his school to participate in the competition next year.

“There’s been very little participation,” Petersen said. “How many kids go, ‘I want to read 16 books on my own.’ It’s not like it’s some devastating thing that we’re taking away.

“Because of this conversation, because of what’s come up, we’re talking about it. I contend the interest will be infinitely higher than it was in the past.”

Petersen said that the schools are not banning the book, but encouraging parents to read the book with their children.

"Nobody’s banning any books," Petersen said.

The Cascade School District is the second in the state – Hermiston being the other – that has withdrawn from the competition due to the organizers' choice to use George.

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Oregon Battle of the Books is a statewide reading program started in 2007 where students are grouped together by grades and are exposed to a variety of literature.

The students are grouped together in third through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade and ninth through 12th grade.

Petersen said his concern is that children just finishing the second grade would be exposed to the material.

“If you’re going to task a 7- or 8-year-old kid to read something about how to erase your search history on a computer or insinuate you’re going to look at pornography and you’re proud of that, it’s probably not a book that a little person should have on their own,” Petersen said.

bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler

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