The Scarborough superintendent apologized Thursday for the decision district administrators made last week to remove a book about children with physical and emotional differences from the seventh-grade curriculum, saying the district failed to follow its policy for challenging materials.

Carrigain Rowan, 13, and her mother, Erin Rowan, seen at their home in Scarborough on Thursday, advocated for the removal of “Freak the Mighty” from the seventh-grade curriculum, saying that they disagreed with language in the book and that its themes perpetuate stereotypes about disabled people. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The decision made by the involved administrators was to remove the book as a class novel this spring until further review could take place,” Superintendent Sanford Prince said in a letter to the community. “At no time was the book banned for student access or permanently removed from the curriculum. In retrospect, it is clear that not continuing with the book was a mistake by the involved administrators.” 

The district decided to remove the book “Freak the Mighty” from the current seventh-grade English curriculum at Scarborough Middle School last week after a parent, Erin Rowan, and her daughter Carrigain opposed its use. They disagreed with the use of the word “retard” in the book and said its themes perpetuate stereotypes about disabled people. Carrigain has Down syndrome and her teacher had reached out to Rowan to ask if they would be comfortable with the book being taught.

After Rowan expressed concerns, she said administrators held a meeting with the seventh-grade English teachers and told her they would be working to ensure that teaching the book would not contribute to negative stereotypes or create harm. But Rowan said she didn’t want to see the book being taught to any students.

“It’s not just about Carrigain’s personal feelings, but also about the fact that her peers will learn inaccurate lessons about disability that will impact their future interactions with her and other students and community members,” she wrote in an email to school administrators.

Last Monday Carrigain emailed students in the middle school talking about her experience with ableism, which is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people, and her opposition to the book and asking her peers to support her. She also boycotted her English class last Tuesday, after which the district’s curriculum director, Monique Culbertson, emailed her mother to ask for a meeting. At the meeting Rowan said she was told the book would no longer be used.

“Thanks to everyone who helped to spread the word about Carrigain’s protest,” she wrote in a Facebook post after the meeting. “We had a meeting with school administrators today, and they are pulling ‘Freak the Mighty’ from the curriculum = immediately and permanently. Our work around the issue of curriculum violence (including but not limited to ableism) is just beginning, but this victory is definitely worth celebrating!”

However, Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, president of the Scarborough Education Association, said that the teachers’ union opposes the decision of the administration. “The Scarborough Education Association is very concerned that the district failed to follow its own policy IJJ, which specifically outlines the steps for any individual or group to challenge materials from the curriculum,” Ash-Cuthbert said. “That procedure creates a neutral evaluation process that requires deep consideration before such a severe decision is made. All educators have valid and solid reasons why the books they choose for a class are chosen and (we feel) that academic integrity and intellectual freedom are at stake here.”

Ash-Cuthbert said the seventh-grade English teachers did not believe the book should be pulled and have been vilified in emails and on social media. They felt the book was about two children who together are stronger and proved to the world disabled kids are strong and powerful. Ash-Cuthbert said the union wants to see the book reinstated and has asked the school board to rectify the situation. The individual English teachers, through the union, declined to comment.

“Freak the Mighty” is published by Scholastic, one of the largest publishers of children’s literature, and the book’s author, Rodman Philbrick, said it has been read in hundreds of school systems since it was first published in 1993. The book is based around the friendship of two boys, Max and Kevin, who live in the same neighborhood and go on adventures together.

“Freak the Mighty” by Rodman Philbrick depicts the friendship between two boys, one of whom is disabled and walks with crutches and the other who has learning disabilities. Philbrick defended the book, which was published in 1993, and his use of the word “retard,” saying he doesn’t “try and clean up the language that is used on the streets and in playgrounds. … I can’t do that and have an edited world. It becomes fantasy rather than reality.”

Kevin, has a genetic disease that causes him to walk with crutches. The disease isn’t named in the book, but Philbrick said the character was inspired by a boy he knew with Morquio syndrome, a genetic condition that affects children’s bones, organs and physical abilities. The other character, Max, comes from a troubled background and is in learning disabled classes. Kevin, who has a congenital heart problem, dies toward the end of the novel, but his death inspires Max to write a book about their transformative friendship.

Philbrick, who wasn’t aware Scarborough schools had stopped using the book, defended its use and said his intention was to be supportive of, not disparaging toward, people who are different. “I’m sorry the parents feel this way,” Philbrick said. “They just have it wrong. That’s all. If they want to have their daughter exempted so she doesn’t have to read it that’s in their rights but to deny the ability of other students to read it, that’s almost censorship.”

Philbrick has published more than a dozen books for young readers and recently received the 2020 Katahdin Award from the Maine Library Association, which recognizes an outstanding body of work of children’s literature in Maine.

He said the book does use the word “retard,” but that’s a reflection of the language children use on playgrounds and at school. In one example from the book, Philbrick said one of the characters is taunted and called a “retard” for struggling to read. “I write very realistic novels and I’m not going to clean up the language,” Philbrick said. “I don’t use swear words or anything like that but to try and clean up the language that is used on the streets and in playgrounds. … I can’t do that and have an edited world. It becomes fantasy rather than reality.”

In his letter Thursday, Prince said the district should have followed policy IJJ, which calls for the appointment of a five-person committee to review challenged materials and make decisions on whether they should be removed from the curriculum.

“I wish to acknowledge that, throughout all of this, the teachers involved displayed the highest level of professionalism and sensitivity,” Prince said. “They were placed into an unfortunate situation because policy was ignored. Their openness and willingness to do what is best for students is to be commended.

“They very quickly moved on from the decision and began working on identifying a new text, and using their creative energies, developed a new instructional unit in a very short period of time, all of this, while in the midst of an incredibly challenging school year, with only six weeks left, and limited time to redesign a unit. Scarborough is fortunate to have these teachers with such a high level of commitment.”

In an interview, Prince said the district is in the process of forming the committee called for in the policy and they will be making a determination on whether the book will be used in future years. “In these situations when somebody has come forward and thinks the book is controversial it’s important to listen to that person, whoever it is, whether it’s the public or anybody in the district,” Prince said. “In this situation I think we should have just jumped right to the policy and formed that committee because that’s what the policy states.”

Prince would not say whether the administrators who made the decision to remove the book have been disciplined and said he would have to check with legal counsel before naming the administrators who made the decision. Rowan said she was informed of the decision by Culbertson, the curriculum director, and Kathy Tirrell, the middle school principal. Tirrell deferred to Prince for comment, while Culbertson did not respond to an email or a message left at her office Thursday.

Rowan said she was surprised and disheartened to learn Thursday that the decision would be considered a curriculum challenge and that the committee would be formed. For the last several years she said she has spent time building collaborative relationships with administrators due to her daughter’s disability and it’s not unusual for them to ask her for feedback or resources.

“I just thought this was like any other time and that this was a time where I would provide them with resources when they asked me a question,” she said. “And then it just kept evolving. By the time they brought up the curriculum challenge thing I was shocked by that.”

She said the issue isn’t just about her and her daughter, but rather about a culture that doesn’t understand the history and struggles of the disabled community. “I don’t expect to change all the systemic problems, but when something like this that is so obviously egregious comes up I do expect to be listened to without putting in 40 hours of work on my own time to convince them of something that was clearly obvious to them before they started because they emailed to say, ‘Is it OK to do this book with Carrigain in the class?'” she said. “Take a minute. You knew it was a problem.”


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