Justin Kang addresses the Mukilteo School Board Monday evening. Kang, and other teachers of the school district, urged the board to no longer require “To Kill A Mockingbird” for ninth-graders. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Justin Kang addresses the Mukilteo School Board Monday evening. Kang, and other teachers of the school district, urged the board to no longer require “To Kill A Mockingbird” for ninth-graders. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

‘White saviorhood’: Mukilteo schools end ‘Mockingbird’ requirement

The book is not banned in the school district. The last book brought before the school board was by Maya Angelou.

MUKILTEO — It’s a new chapter for the Mukilteo School District.

Late Monday, the school board voted unanimously that “To Kill a Mockingbird” should not be mandatory reading for ninth graders.

What will replace the novel is to be determined, but it likely will be a book more reflective of coming of age in the 2020s, not the 1930s.

At Monday’s meeting, the board listened to public comments from about a dozen speakers, with nearly all supporting the novel’s removal from required reading. The book uses outdated and offensive dialogue in telling the story of a white lawyer defending a Black man wrongly accused of rape in Alabama.

It is the first time in about 25 years a request was made to the board to remove a book from the curriculum. High school English teachers Verena Kuzmany, Riley Gaggero and Rachel Johnson asked for the removal in September, citing the novel “celebrates white saviorhood,” “marginalizes characters of color” and “uses the ‘n’ word almost 50 times.”

The evaluating 20-member Instructional Materials Committee of staff and parents recommended the book be cut from the required reading list, but that it should remain on the approved novels list for teachers to use.

The board on Monday approved the committee’s recommendation.

Board member Judy Schwab said it was one of the most challenging votes in her 24 years on the school board. Most feedback she received supported keeping the book as a required reading. She reread the book before the vote.

“I had a visceral reaction to the racism in the book and I can only imagine the pain and despair that any student might experience reading it in class,” Schwab said at Monday’s meeting.

Board member John Gahagan also reread the book and said it did not invoke the same “fond memories” of reading it decades ago in school.

“It is a very disturbing book. … It’s a difficult book,” Gahagan said. “I think it is a valuable learning experience for teachers who are capable to walk their students through it.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

Thien Nguyen, a Mariner High School student board representative, questioned the book’s perspective on history written by a white woman in a different time period.

“The language that is used is disgusting. It should not be in our schools for the way it targets minorities and demeans them,” he said. “There are so many other great books out there that could be used as a replacement.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been controversial for 60 years but remains required reading in many schools nationwide, though several districts have banned the book.

In Mukilteo, the book is not banned. If they choose, teachers can teach it.

“It is our position that this book should not be taught at all,” Ed Glazer, NAACP of Snohomish County education chairperson, said during the public comment session. “… Your teachers have said they do not have the competency to teach this book so it does not traumatize students in the class.”

Nivedita Kumar, a 2020 Kamiak graduate, recalled reading “Mockingbird” in high school.

“I still vividly remember the discomfort in the classroom as a racial slur was repeated over 50 times and we read about lynching with no previous context on the historical connotation of these topics,” she said. “… It is narrated through the lens of the white experience.”

Michael Simmons, president of the Mukilteo School Board, discusses “To Kill A Mockingbird” Monday evening. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Michael Simmons, president of the Mukilteo School Board, discusses “To Kill A Mockingbird” Monday evening. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Diane Bradford, a district spokesperson, said the last book brought before the board was in 1997, when a family objected to “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. The board decided that it should be retained on the approved novels list.

Each grade has a required novel. Freshmen had been assigned “Mockingbird.” Sophomores are given “Things Fall Apart,” juniors read “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” and for seniors the book is “Pygmalion.” In lower grades, books are “Talk Two Moons” for sixth grade; “Tangerine” for seventh grade; and “Fahrenheit 451” or “The Giver” for eighth grade.

“Are we opening a Pandora’s box?” board member Kyle Kennedy said. “The decision tonight will potentially impact many other books as more and more are looked at through an equity lens.”

Kamiak High School teacher Gaggero, who initiated the book’s complete removal, said it was an “odd compromise” to allow it on the approved novel list.

“This idea of having to put our curriculum under a microscope after this decision,” she said, “doesn’t sound like such a horrible idea.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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