Conejo Schools “BookGate” war continues

Board authorizes Supt. to develop a core book selection/use policy

By George Miller (published 10-6-17, updated 10-7-17)

On Tuesday, October 3, the Conejo Valley Unified High School District Board of Education met and discussed (among other things) what to do about the core literature list controversy. There has been much discussion about some books and whether their content is age-appropriate for students. Some opponents of the books want them removed from the list altogether, some want an opt-out policy. Two were not big on changing anything.

CVUSD Board (l-r): Betsy Connelly- DVM, Mike Dunn, Sandee Everett- M.S.Ed, John Andersen, Patricia Phelps

The Board  authorized Interim CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Mark McLaughlin to research and develop a policy, to be reviewed by an ad hoc board committee and to consult some parents, They did not appoint or even define how they would appoint the review committees. Board President Mike Dunn and member Sandy Everett favor having board members on the committee to develop the policy. Board Member Betsy Connolly was willing to go that route, provided that members from both factions were represented. However, McLaughlin repeatedly opposed that and Board Member John Anderson supported him on this, along with Phelps. Even though it looked like he had the votes, Dunn did not make a motion to include Board members on the committee. He instead took a vote (he says it was merely a “consensus,” since this was an Information Item) on having the Superintendent handle it with staff and have an after the fact review by a couple of undetermined board members. It wasn’t exactly clear whether parents would only be consulted by the committee or actually review the draft product as well.  Everett made it clear that she wanted parents impacted by this and preferably some with opt-out experience to review it and consult on it.

When I later reached Board President Dunn to ask  exactly what they did, he told me that they discussed the issue and agreed to direct the Superintendent to form a committee to write a policy to deal with the textbook controversy. Upon review and incorporating Board input, it would then become an agenda action item or discussion and vote.

Dunn told me that at a minimum, he wants letters of notification sent to parents describing the books, including excerpts that might be deemed offensive.

Quite a few members of the public weighed in, preponderantly in favor of parental opt-out or even elimination of offensive books from the core literature list. One score keeper told us that 18 spoke in favor of some form of opt-out/restriction and four against. We’ll let you watch the video and decide for yourself. Speakers addressing this were on both Public Comments and Core Literature Material Policy agenda items: VIDEO  In  previous meetings, speakers were skewed against opt-outs or bans.


From Agenda item 11: New Board Policy and Administrative Regulation – Core Literature Material

At its special discussion session on September 25, 2017, the Board of Education met with district administrators and teachers to exchange information on the possibility and necessity of a new board policy and administrative regulation regarding core literature material. The Board will discuss procedures in moving forward.


Dr. Amy Chen spoke out against the inclusion of what many consider offense books in class. Photo: Marc Langsam/


College professor and former PA school board member Rick Herd spoke out against current book selection, advocated parental control, said books were not even on state core list. He later told us it turned out they were, but not authorized for the subject in question. Photo: Marc Langsam/

It came out during the meeting that the state has a core curriculum literature list by subject and grade.  Schools are welcome to draw from that for their own curricula. There is a very vague and informal opt-out process, rarely used, obscure/largely unknown. Parents have complained about being blindsided by books they objected to. According to state policy, schools can also pick their own books not on the state list, but, there has to be some kind of approval process and it’s supposed to involve stakeholders. We have not seen this policy.

Recommended Literature List – Curriculum Resources (CA Dept of …

Literature Links – School Libraries (CA Dept of Education)




For months, a controversy has swirled about on whether the Conejo Unified School District (most Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and vicinity public schools) should accept “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie in its core curriculum for 9th grade students. Books so chosen are then selected at teacher’s discretion from the core list. It appears to be rather risque/vulgar, so there is debate about whether it is appropriate for children, especially 14-year olds and under.  But, for better or worse, the board voted 4-1 on September 15 to accept the book (meeting agenda and video linked below).

Board President Mike Dunn led the charge to present the book as unsuitable for use by 9th graders and either leave it off the core curriculum list or make it an “opt-out” selection without outright “banning it” in the District. He experienced immediate caustic and sustained attacks since June, accusing him of “book-banning,” religious fanaticism” and worse. Two other board members seemed to think that the book was unsuitable, but on the night of the vote, there were no board troops following him. John Andersen made the motion to accept it as an optional book. On the vote Dunn was the sole opponent of accepting the book, even with two other nominal Conservatives on the board.

But, it wasn’t the crushing defeat portrayed by county Liberal media. Sandee Everett was in favor of the opt-out process. Three board members- Dunn, Andersen and Everett, intend to address a “parental choice” policy at a September 5 (took place much later) study session. Some say that straight “opt-out” or “opt-in” policy may not be legal under court interpretations of current state laws. We haven’t seen a survey of relevant court rulings yet,

When I asked Dunn and Andersen separately why they didn’t modify the motion to address that, I didn’t get a straight answer. I suspect that they didn’t yet have their ducks in a row to address that , due to the legal issues and necessity to get a majority to agree to it. Maybe it was considered beyond the scope of the agenda item.

Board member Betsy Connolly emailed me from an airport while on the way to Ireland and sent the following responses to questions:

CVUSD Board Member Betsy Connolly

Q: Your impression on process and outcome of meeting?

I’m pleased that the board majority voted to add Sherman Alexie’s book to the core lit list for 9th grade. Unless there is good evidence that the process has failed, I’m inclined to trust teachers when it comes to instruction and trust parents when it comes to children

Q:  Next probable steps?

I hope that the board will include teachers students and parents in discussion as a policy is considered for the providing of students with alternative assignments if a family has a religious or emotional trigger reason to avoid a lesson.

I hope that the board will include teachers students and parents in discussion as a policy is considered for the providing of students with alternative assignments if a family has a religious or emotional trigger reason to avoid a lesson.

A strong letter writing campaign by advocates of such books overpowered the “anti’s” in several local publications, accusing opponents of book-burning, prudent, fascism and more. Quite a few of them showed up at the meeting to support accepting the book and heaping scorn and criticism on Dunn and to a lesser extent, Everett and Andersen.

Some book opponents spoke up pointing out what they said were the hazards of having such material in the curriculum. Most news articles ranged from neutral to pro-book. We didn’t see too much involvement by religious organizations. It appears that Conejo United may be one of those.  “Indivisible Conejo,” a left wing group in favor of such books in the curriculum, has been a key player.

The interesting thing was that Dunn was not advocating banning of the book. He didn’t want it on the core curriculum list, but it is already in three CVUSD high school libraries. He wasn’t seeking to have it removed, but was pushing a parental opt-out option, which seems quite reasonable. So, advocates weren’t just opposing Dunn/school board “banning” books, but also parents who wanted to.

When I asked Andersen why the meeting public speakers seemed to be weighted so heavily toward the book, he opined that Indivisible Conejo was driving the opposition to the board controlling the book choices.  Dunn had another perspective. He said that in any case, Conservative candidates were much more successful in the election. So the real authority, he maintained, are the voters, who spoke much louder than pressure groups at the meeting. Sandee Everett finished way ahead, while Betsy Connally squeaked back in with far fewer votes than last time and Peggy Buckles was voted out, he offered. (see official vote results below).


CVUSD Board President Mike Dunn

Dunn’s words: “The book is obscene with profanity including references to sex and masturbation.

  •     The government should not force a child to read an obscene book.  Forcing a child to read an obscene book is psychological child abuse.
  •     Opting out is illegal.  Students can opt out of sex ed, hiv ed and s/questionnaires.  Courts have ruled children cannot opt out of required curriculum.
  •     We do have a past practice where students can ask teachers for a different book.  But children fear asking because of retaliation from the teachers.  IE:  Mr. Gerber mentioned his A B child got an F in the class she requested a different book.  Only 13 students successfully got another book to read.”

Our enrollment is declining while Oaks Christian’s enrollment at 25,000 dollars a year is increasing.  This obscene book is one reason.

Dunn: I think another issue from this controversy is whether our children will be controlled by government “experts” or whether parent rights will prevail.  Connolly thinks the government should control and raise our children.


To be sure, entertainment media and curriculum content are far more explicit than they were years ago.  A combination of First Amendment cases, public preferences and pressure groups have opened up these to previous undreamed of levels. All this has made it harder for schools and parents to impose stringent standards on school reading materials or instructional material, for that matter.

So, is this book “the hill to die on” for board members? Why are advocates pushing such a flawed book and why are opponents attacking one which also has positive messages? While it has its share of offensive material, advocates say that it also has strong redeeming messages.  It has a 4.5 Amazon review rating, with over 1200 people weighing in on it. But multiple board members have told me and multiple public speakers at the meeting say that with all of the worthy books, why was one picked which is so flawed, so sullied with offensive material?

Although this work was rated the “top challenged book” for 2014 by The American Library Association, the group sent an 11th hour plea to the school board before the vote to accept it ….

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie   Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”


It’s out there already

Some will say that restricting books in school is futile, because that and much worse are all over already. Anyone with unfettered access to the Internet can readily find anything from the most graphic pornography ranging down  to “shades  of grey”  and the only somewhat risque.  Some of it is quite base and even depicts illegal, harmful and – dare we say it – “immoral” behavior. On the other hand much of it depicts somewhat more mainstream “adult” activity. Some say it might even be useful as instructional material, but some of it is so unrealistic mechanically and socially, that it could actually be counterproductive.  One wonders how children process this and make their value judgements without sound guidance.



Progressive opposition to any book “ban” or even restriction, such as tighter criteria, screening method,s or parental/student opt-out, is well-organized and strident. In addition to Board members Connelly, Phelps and key administration figures and even some teachers, Indivisible Conejo has been the most strident opposition, They have managed a credible barrage of opposition via a letter-to-the-editor writing campaign and public speaking at meetings.

Indivisible leader Jon Cummings had this to say on their Facebook page after the October 3 meeting, when the Board authorized the Supt. to create a draft book selection and use policy:

An update, for those who follow the convoluted and oft-insane workings of the CVUSD board of trustees: This evening, after extensive debate (and a great deal of petulance from a certain moustachioed board president), the board voted to create a “superintendent’s committee” to discuss a potential policy allowing parents to opt out of works in the Core Literature curriculum.

The committee will NOT include board members, but will comprise relevant district administrators, members of the “articulation committee” that considers works for the curriculum, and other English teachers. The committee will meet with educational and legal experts as well as interested members of the community — including parents who can offer perspective on their efforts to use the district’s longstanding opt-out practice.

This “superintendent’s committee,” in turn, will report its findings and recommendations to a two-member, ad-hoc board committee. Mike Dunn will choose those committee members, though tonight the trustees agreed that one should come from each side of the board’s ideological divide. When that ad-hoc committee is satisfied with the other committee’s work, they will take a proposal to the full board for a vote — hopefully by the end of the first semester.

If all that sounds confusing and probably unnecessary to you, you’re not alone. However, this result was the best one we could expect, as it will be dominated not by the board’s right-wing extremists, but by education experts. Congratulations to CVUSD’s interim superintendent, Dr. Mark McLaughlin, for arriving at a sane solution for the shape of this committee and then sticking to it through a drawn-out discussion. And congratulations to board members Betsy Connolly at Pat Phelps for their fortitude in fending off Dunn’s typically loony ideas (“Why don’t we just have a member of the public write a policy?”) and generally toddler-like misbehavior.

More to come, of course…


Conejo United

Unified Conejo is a Christian Conservative group which has led the charge for parental control and helped change the makeup of the board in elections.

Statement by leader Tim Bond obtained 10-6-17:

I am highly encouraged by the increased awareness in the community which has empowered parents and community members to step forward to speak to the elected CVUSD school board. I am also very impressed with the quality of speakers at school board meetings, many who are parents of students attending our schools in the district. They are articulate, calm and clear-spoken individuals who care deeply about preserving the rights of parents to determine what should and should not influence the values instilled on their children and the content they exposed to, at the times they know are or are not most appropriate for their individual child.

These parents are demonstrating that they have a powerful voice regarding the core curriculum their students may or may not be required to read. CVUSD board members are now on notice that the Conejo is in fact NOT a divided community, as a few very partisan political groups have tried to make it.

Instead, the more parents are informed, the more they become actively engaged, and the more they are actively engaging in the civic process, the more they prove how unified the Conejo really is, on the values most of us hold near and dear to us, as Americans.

I hope and pray that more parents join us at these meetings, so that we can all join in defending our liberties and the interests of parents and students alike. I also hope and pray more teachers join the process and embrace these interests readily, without feeling a need to defend their positions of responsibility to our community. We cherish the contributions of teachers and we want their support in providing the best Opt-In policy we can offer, perhaps even better than the policies required to gain approval from parents for their kids to watch PG-rated movies in the classroom, and at least as stringent as the readily accepted standards applied at movie theaters around the country.

Thank you parents and teachers. We need you now more than ever. Please join the Unified Conejo in these efforts.

-Timothy Bond Unified Conejo


Religious views

Some religious groups oppose “pornography” (the word was derived from the Greek porni [“prostitute”] and graphein [“to write”], was originally defined as any work of art or literature depicting the life of prostitutes). We haven’t seen specific prohibitions in the Bible, but there are some passages that could be extrapolated into that, in that they warn against the behaviors that such works seem to promote. Reference.

MovieGuide CEo Dr. Ted Baehr

We asked Ted Baehr, CEO of locally-based  Movieguide to comment. His words:

“As former head of the TV Center of City University of New York and former Chairman of the Institute for the Study of Media at the “Center for the Arts, Religion and Education” of the GTU at U.C. Berkeley,  teacher of cognitive development theory and media literacy since the 1970’s, I must reiterate that the evidence is irrefutable as Congress has concluded that children, at the early stages of cognitive development up to their late teens, are not capable of dealing with material inflaming their particular susceptibilities in ways that are anti-social and self-destructive.”


Paul White of Ventura QOL (Quality of Life) and StrongHold Institute

Paul White of Ventura QOL (Quality of Life), a strong Christian Conservative opined (excerpts):

  • I just finished a complete and thorough reading of the book-in-question in the Conejo District.  My conclusion is that the Board member didn’t use his political capital wisely in opposing it; but rather, gave liberals an undeserved opportunity to criticize conservatives who support better morals and values in our schools. If the Board Member thinks the overall book undermines moral/spiritual values in the District, he either didn’t read the entire book, or has an extremely minority opinion of the role that well-written but realistic coming-of-age stories can play in teaching values to juveniles.

  • The book contains zero graphic descriptions of sex. It does include a brief discussion of masturbation, and a few brief mentions of “getting a boner”, that are not gratuitous in the book’s context, but an honest , unexaggerated portrayal of teen boys in a coming-of-age story.  It has no graphic violence, nor dark emotional situations, like other “classic” books on the Conejo list.

  • The core of the story is strong.  An Indian boy  describes the challenge of growing up on an impoverished Indian reservation with: birth defects (and the constant mocking/torment that accompanied that), being suppressed by the (very accurately described)self-destructive, drunken, rural-ghetto atmosphere of reservation life, and the main character’s huge (and successful!) effort to surmount overwhelming odds and peer pressure, leave the reservation, attend a white school nearby where he found a better environment and education.

  • Having administrated a school that drew students from 5 nearby Indian reservations, I found the author’s  criticism re both the horribly broken reservation system AND the Indian behavior that contributes to their problems, to be even-handed and very helpful in educating people about both sides of this unhealed situation.

Bottom line:  the Board member should have had better counsel.  There are LOTS of things to oppose and change within the Conejo district (the same issues I publicly spoke to), but this book is not one of them.  Letting this issue take center stage gives the district leaders a future “red herring” – an opportunity to deflect any justified future criticism the Board member might have of the essential issues that are killing ALL school districts, including Conejo.

Books that have really substantive plots and inspiring characters don’t need to turn to the  shock value of profanity, explicit violence, and scatalogical descriptions to create a (very) temporary  audience.”  Encouraging students to have moral standards for the books they read, is no more “wrongful censorship” than encouraging students to have moral standards for their behavior in regard to other moral issues, like honesty, sexual abstinence outside of marriage, clean/sober living, stealing,cheating, parental respect, profanity, etc.

It’s understandable that library associations would be against any kind of discriminating taste in choosing books for children.  The number of kids who read – the amount of time they read, and the dwindling future of libraries has combined to make them desperate to get more kids reading, even if it means recommending garbage.”

Opponents claim that opt-out already exists

Multiple people,including Board Member Betsy Connelly, mentioned at the meeting that opt-out already exists, so why is Dunn flogging this issue? If it exists, the District had done an exceedingly poor job of publicizing it and supporting parents in utilizing it. Board President Mike Dunn told, that following the core curriculum is mandatory, which he asserted is supported by court rulings, He says he was told that parents could “request” an opt-out, which a teacher may or not consent to, In other words, parents don’t have the last word in child-rearing. He added that the courts have declared that sending your child to public schools constitutes explicit agreement to follow the curriculum/activities, with the only exceptions carved out as: sex education, HIV education, surveys and questionnaires. If they can’t live with that, they can homeschool or private school their children. Many do exactly that he said, adding that he believes that about 26% of Conejo Valley school age children are not in the public school system.

Dunn claimed he was at a parent-teacher meeting just recently


Rather than telling you what to think, may I instead leave you with a few questions and statements? So, the questions are: is it harmful? Does it violate community standards for 14 year olds? Does it have “redeeming” value? Does it violate religious beliefs? Does it violate statutes? Does it violate the Constitution? Are the statutes and school regulations Constitutional? Does an opt-out provision provide adequate safeguards? Should books/videos used in schools warn about the consequences of actions described or at least be supplemented by instructional materials?

If this book was being looked at for adults, no government has any right to restrict it. But govt. and more importantly, parents, do have the right to restrict it for minors. Religious organizations have the right to make recommendations to their members and even the general public, who in turn have the right to do whatever they want about it. Some of the book advocates have (deliberately and misleadingly) conflated restricting minors and restricting adults and improperly invoked the Constitution to do so.

So, the board has now authorized the administration to pull together a policy. Key members of the same administration brought us the controversy we have now, so we’ll see how they respond to the input to accommodate objectors to books and current practices for handling their assignment. We’ll see how parents and board members interact in this process.

Both sides have concerns. Those who want restrictions fear that their kids may suffer reprisals. Those who don’t fear that good books will be squeezed out by those trying to shield their kids from what they believe is offensive or even harmful literature.

Not addressed at all but still an issue are politically biased literature and instruction.

There was a study session on this at a late September 2017 board meeting, then of course, the one on Oct. 3.


Board members:

Mike Dunn, President- [email protected]

John Andersen, Vice-President- [email protected]

Sandee Everett, Clerk- [email protected]

Betsy Connolly, DVM, Member- [email protected]

Patricia M. Phelps, Member- [email protected]

Mark W. McLaughlin, Ed.D., Interim Superintendent- [email protected]



Meeting agenda:

Meeting Video:

Based on this article, at least one jurisdiction has very different community standards

Star article

Acorn article

Local activist says Conejo School Board vote on racy book not what it seems


Agenda Item Details


Aug 15, 2017 – Regular Board Meeting




Approval of New Core Literature Titles For English




Should the Board of Education approve the new core literature titles for English Language Arts Instruction?


The Conejo Valley Unified School District follows the California Department of Education’s adoption recommendations and all English textbooks adopted contain selections of excellent, high quality literature.  Many of these anthology selections are excerpts of longer works.  Students benefit from the study of novels in their entirety.  Our English/Language Arts Articulation Committee has given considerable discussion and thought to the merit of the titles placed on the core literature list.  This discussion and review also takes place in the Secondary Curriculum Advisory Council meeting and both titles listed below were chosen to move forward for board approval.  In an effort to provide more support and resources to secondary English students, teachers reviewed contemporary novels for supplemental materials.

The novels listed have received the support of the Core Literature Committee, English/Language Arts Articulation and the Secondary Curriculum Advisory Council.

Title Author ISBN Grade
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Sherman Alexie 9780316013697 9
The Wild Truth Carine McCandless 9780062325151 11CP


  1. Approve new core literature titles.
  2. Do not approve new core literature titles.


Alternative #1.


These books were reviewed thoroughly by the 6-12 English teachers.  These novels will support and strengthen the core curriculum and broaden student’s knowledge and skills. Use of these novels will encourage/entice more of our students to read by offering them compelling stories with profound life-long lessons.

Educational Testing Service produces both the Advanced Placement (AP) and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) and these novels allows CVUSD to prepare our College Preparation (CP) students with equally challenging and rich works by celebrated authors.


School site funds will be utilized to purchase the books.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark W. McLaughlin, Ed.D.

Interim Superintendent


Prepared by:

Jennifer Boone, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment/

Title I School Program Improvement Professional Development for

Robert Iezza, Deputy Superintendent, Instructional Services


George Miller is Publisher/Co-Founder of and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxnard.

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