NORTH SMITHFIELD – Supt. Michael St. Jean has halted assigned coursework in an English class at North Smithfield High School, stating that one book in the lineup – The Virgin Suicides – “does not reflect the educational mission,” of the district.
The best-selling novel, released in 1993 by American author Jeffrey Eugenides, centers on the lives of five sisters who take their own lives in a single year. Set in Michigan in the 1970s, the novel is told from the perspective of neighborhood boys who witness the events and describes the deaths, while exploring other mature themes such as promiscuity.
The book was assigned in an elective class dubbed Gothic: Horror, Thrillers, taught by English teacher Hannah Cevoli and librarian Jessica Camara. It was made into a movie by Sofia Coppola in 1999, which was also viewed by previous students in the dark literature coursework.
As part of the assignment, students were asked to construct accurate examples from an exhibit the boys made of items related to the girls, described years later, including, a “brassiere becoming as stiff and prosthetic as something a grandmother might wear.”
One outraged parent who asked to remain anonymous to protect their child noted reaction from the school may have been very different if two male teachers had instructed a teenage girl to bring her bra to class.
The assigned work was officially halted on Thursday, March 23 with an email sent to parents.
“This book does not reflect the educational mission of North Smithfield Schools and should never have been included,” St. Jean noted. “Please note this text is no longer to be used and any related assignments have been discontinued with no grade penalty to any student.”
St. Jean added that the course will no longer be, “team taught,” and that administrators will review the class syllabus and determine which readings will be used for the remainder of the semester.
“All current English department texts and media will be reviewed for content, age appropriateness, and balance,” St. Jean added. “All current English department courses will be assessed for content and appropriateness with a determination of whether the course should be continued, modified, or replaced.”
“We will be clarifying, and enforcing, media selection guidelines and procedures to be applied across all grade levels and all content areas,” he said.
The source told NRI NOW that the decision was made after multiple parents contacted the school outraged over the assignment and the book’s content.
“I’m just so disgusted it happened,” the parent said. “It just bothers me that teachers would think this is ok.”
The parent noted that a syllabus for the class was sent home with students but, “I signed it assuming they were teaching approved curriculum.”
By comparison, the parent pointed out that when North Smithfield High School students covered the sensitive topic of suicide in health class, parents received special waivers.
“There is such a high rate of mental health issues with kids these days,” the parent said. “Kids shouldn’t have to read this.”
From graphic descriptions of sexual acts, to detailed accounts of the girls’ deaths the parent said amounted to a book on, “how to kill yourself,” the text was highly inappropriate for the juniors and seniors told to read it, according to some.
“There were times when I had to shut it and walk away because as a parent I was furious,” said the source.
Not all would agree. Academic Exchange Quarterly notes the novel and, “the discussion it evokes provide important teachable moments in American literature,” describing it as, “a text that works well for both high school and college-level English courses.”
Common Sense Media, an organization that reviews and provides ratings for media and technology with the goal of providing information on their suitability for children, rates the coming-of-age novel appropriate for ages 17 plus.
School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said he agrees with the superintendent’s review of the situation and his conclusion.
“It was brought to my attention that there were students who were uncomfortable with the content of the book, the classroom discussion and the required project,” Lombardi said.
And for at least one parent, in this case, there’s a larger issue at play.
“They didn’t clear it with administration,” the parent said.
Asked if the teachers involved were penalized for the decision to include the book, St. Jean said he cannot discuss matters related to personnel.
In the note to parents, St. Jean said the district is currently investigating how the incident could have happened, and “deeply regret(s) that this lack of judgment occurred.”
“We appreciate your patience with us as we further investigate this issue,” he said.