NORTH SMITHFIELD – Several students at North Smithfield High School are speaking out after noting that an elective class that drew criticism from parents this year will not be offered next fall.
A class dubbed, “Gothic Literature and Fairy Tales,” is not on the roster for the 2023/2024 school year, according to students speaking before the School Committee on Tuesday, July 18. The class came under scrutiny in March after parents questioned inclusion in the curriculum of The Virgin Suicides, a 1993 novel that centers on five sisters who all take their own lives in a single year.
“The class was removed due to complaints about the nature of the content,” noted Sofia Colucci, who will be a sophomore at NSHS in the fall. “The mental health taboo is a huge reason that this book received backlash. Taboos lead to holes in education, which leads to stigma and discrimination, making it harder for people to get help who need it.”
Set in Michigan in the 1970s, the novel by American author Jeffrey Eugenides is told from the perspective of neighborhood boys who witness the events and describes the deaths, while exploring other mature themes such as promiscuity.
A parent angered by its inclusion in coursework first contacted NRI NOW in March, stating that her daughter had been asked to bring a bra into class as part of an assignment. The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed to graphic descriptions of sexual acts and detailed accounts of the girls’ deaths in the book. She said she later learned that the novel was not part of the school’s approved curriculum.
Supt. Michael St. Jean halted the coursework in reaction to complaints and issued a statement noting that the book, “does not reflect the educational mission of North Smithfield Schools and should never have been included.”
This week, St. Jean noted that while the book will not be returned to the coursework, the class itself is offered on an every other year cycle, and will return next year.
Colucci noted that The Virgin Suicides is commonly considered, “a modern classic,” and said it was taken out of context by those who deemed it inappropriate. The novel, she noted, is rated appropriate for ages 13 plus, or at worst, 17 plus on the more conservative ratings – and the class was only offered to junior and seniors.
“Not talking about these bad, real things does not make them go away but will only make it harder for people to get help when they need it,” Colucci said.
Thayer Glucksman, another incoming sophomore, echoed the sentiments.
“Censorship and censoring books from curriculum prevents students from learning the whole picture,” Glucksman said. “Parents can of course restrict what we are exposed to at home, but it’s not fair to us as learners and students if they are able to restrict what we’re exposed to at school, an environment where we’re supposed to be able to learn safely.”
“High school is a place, after all, for growth, both as a person and a learner, and a student,” Glucksman said.
Incoming sophomore Aayan Khan said he is concerned the removal of coursework will seep into other subjects, and could be used to suppress topics such as Native American and African American history.
“This type of censorship will not just stop with the English Department if we allow it to continue,” Khan said. “They also might not want their children to read specific stories that discuss these things such as racism in To Kill a Mockingbird under the pretense that it’s too graphic for high schoolers.”
“Students’ education impacts their whole ives and denying them the right to know our nation’s history, or sometimes ugly history, is denying them crucial education,” Khan said.
The students also defended the educators who taught the class last year, Hannah Cevoli and Jessica Camara, noting that the pair also ran the school’s book club.
“They are very passionate,” Colucci said.
Asked in March if the teachers faced discipline over the book controversy, St. Jean said he could not discuss personnel matters. Students in one of Cevoli’s classes, however, told NRI NOW that the teacher went on leave shortly after the incident, and did not return for the remainder of the school year.
St. Jean said this week that both teachers are still employed by the North Smithfield School Department.
“I want to congratulate and thank our students who expressed their concerns and opinions at Tuesday’s school committee meeting,” he said. “They were thoughtful, articulate, and spoke honorably. We were all so proud of them.”
On Tuesday, School Committee Chairman James Lombardi also thanked the students for speaking out.
“We really appreciate you coming and stating what you believe,” Lombardi said. “We encourage that from all students and all parents.”
Editor’s note: The above article has been edited to include comments from Supt. Michael St. Jean.