Dozens protest in support of Asian American book, Muskego school board says content was not the reason it wasn't approved

NOW: Dozens protest in support of Asian American book, Muskego school board says content was not the reason it wasn’t approved

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MUSKEGO, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Monday night dozens of people rallied in Muskego in support of Asian Americans and a book the school board did not approve for the high school curriculum.

The book is called When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka.

The board adjourned Monday's meeting without addressing the controversy, but CBS 58 crews spoke with board members after the meeting.

Board members said their decision to not approve the book last month had nothing to do with its content, but because it was not submitted according to district policy.

A statement reads in part, "Our policy states selection of instructional materials shall not discriminate on the basis of any characteristics protected under state or federal law. Concerns were raised about whether this policy was followed. To ensure the policy is followed, staff will reevaluate their recommendation and will start the process over to ensure a fair and non-discriminatory process be used to select a book for this class."

Regardless of why it wasn't approved, protesters don't feel there's enough diversity and representation.

Kabby Hong, the 2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, said books "serve as a window, because for many kids they're able to see the lived experiences of somebody that is different than them. And is that so wrong?"

Rallygoers called for more transparency ahead of a Muskego-Norway school board meeting.

Muskego mother & librarian Ann Zielke told the crowd, "Despite what some board members have said, there are no two sides to Japanese-American incarceration."

Author Julie Otsuka said, "I don't think you can really hide the truth."

Told from five perspectives, Otsuka's novel details a Japanese-American family's experience in a WWII internment camp. She said, "I think if you limit what can be taught to students, then you end up with a generation of students that are really ill-prepared."

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were mass incarcerated during WWII. The US government formally apologized in 1988 and reparations were paid.

Ron Kuramoto, the president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League, said, "These are real people. They stayed at the Santa Anita Racetrack. They stayed in the horse stables. My mom would always talk about she can still smell the horse manure."

Otsuka says students' ability to process information should not be underestimated.

The novel has been a part of high school and college curricula for years. Otsuka says she often gets letters from students. "Many of them said they'd never learned about the Japanese-American incarceration before. And then the next question was 'why?' Why weren't they taught this in schools?"

Several hundred people have signed a petition that says they are "infuriated that [the book] has been met with an ideology that forcefully shuts down any mention of historically disenfranchised people."

The state's department of public instruction calls diversity "our greatest education asset" and says teaching diversity is "an understanding about the values, beliefs, and behaviors of people from cultures that may be different from your own."

And protesters focused on reports a board member said the book was "too sad" for students.

Kabby Hong said, "If you got rid of every book that was 'too sad,' you'd have no Shakespeare, no classic literature, and about 90% of your books would be gone from your curriculum."

Two board members said after the meeting they would have no problem if the book was resubmitted following proper policies.

AAPI of Wisconsin made 100 copies of the novel available to pass out for free at the rally. They also printed copies of the original relocation order.

Read the full statement from Muskego-Norway schools below:

First off; the book, When The Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, is not banned and never was denied. Among other instructional materials, this book was brought forward by administration for their consideration. This book did not move forward to the full board per the recommendation of staff, therefore, the full board has not yet had an opportunity to approve or deny its purchase. Over the last four years, the Board has approved hundreds of books and dozens of new courses along with other updates to the district's curriculum.

Below is a response from the Committee Chair:

"There were many personal book opinions shared by several people but that was not the reason the book was not selected. Our policy states selection of instructional materials shall not discriminate on the basis of any characteristics protected under State or Federal law. Concerns were raised about whether this policy was followed. To ensure the policy is followed, staff will reevaluate their recommendation and will start the process over to ensure a fair and non-discriminatory process be used to select a book for this class.
As part of our review process, the board will ask questions, review the process outlined in policy and at times, move a decision for a later date. Committees of the board and the full board have also requested more time, more information and additional options from staff when faced with recommendations brought forward related to district operations (e.g., finance, property, building services, etc.). At no point was this book banned or denied by the committee of the board or the full board. Rather, district staff recommended that it be sent through the staff committee process again."
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