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Decision No. 13,335

Appeal of HAROLD F. SMITH, JR., on behalf of his son, JOSEPH, from action of the Board of Education of the Guilderland Central School District regarding curriculum.

Decision No. 13,335

(January 23, 1995)

Hancock & Estabrook, Esqs., attorneys for respondent, Renee L. James, Esq., of counsel

SOBOL, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals respondent's refusal to remove a book from the tenth grade curriculum. The appeal must be dismissed.

During the 1992-93 school year, petitioner's son, Joseph, read the book The Great Santini, by Pat Conroy, in his tenth grade English class at respondent's high school. In June 1993, Joseph filed a request for reconsideration of the book on a form provided by the district. Pursuant to respondent's challenged book policy, the high school principal activated the book selection committee, comprised of the principal, a teacher not directly involved, a librarian, a board member and the president of the Parent Teacher Association (the "committee"). On June 22, 1993, the committee met and heard testimony from Joseph, Joseph's tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Birchler, the English teacher who originally requested that the book be approved for use in the tenth grade. Based on all the information presented at that meeting and after its own review of the book, the committee recommended that the book be retained on the approved book list.

Petitioner's son appealed the recommendation to respondent. On August 4, 1993, respondent met to consider the appeal. Prior to the meeting, all board members read the book. At the meeting, respondent heard testimony from and asked questions of Joseph, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Birchler. In addition, respondent considered all written evidence submitted in support and in opposition to the book. At the conclusion of the meeting, the board unanimously voted to uphold the committee's decision.

Petitioner then commenced this appeal and requested a stay. On September 16, 1993, I denied that request.

Petitioner contends that the book should be removed from respondent's approved book list because it is inappropriate for use in the tenth grade. In addition, petitioner requests a formal reprimand of Mr. Birchler for his alleged mishandling of the matter. Lastly, petitioner requests a review of respondent's textbook selection policy. Respondent contends that it did not abuse its discretion in retaining the book as part of its tenth grade curriculum.

Before reaching the merits, I must address a procedural issue. Petitioner requests that a formal reprimand be placed in Mr. Birchler's permanent record. When an individual's rights may be affected by a determination in an appeal brought pursuant to Education Law '310, that individual must be joined as a party (Appeal of Cardinal, 34 Ed Dept Rep 76; Appeal of Sanfilippo, 33 id. 500). Because Mr. Birchler has not been joined as a party in this appeal, that portion of the petition against Mr. Birchler must be dismissed.

The appeal must also be dismissed on the merits. Education Law ''701(1) and 1709(4) authorize a board of education to designate the textbooks to be used in the schools under its charge. The parents of a pupil cannot compel a board to use a particular textbook or to discontinue the use of a particular textbook (Appeal of Mitchell, 13 Ed Dept Rep 228).

Moreover, boards of education have broad authority to prescribe the course of study in the schools of the district (Education Law ''1709[3], 1804[1]; Appeal of Keen, 32 Ed Dept Rep 299; Appeal of DeGroff, et al., 31 id. 332). The Supreme Court has confirmed that school authorities enjoy broad discretion in regulating matters of curriculum (Bd. of Educ., Island Trees U.F.S.D. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 US 853, 869). I will not substitute my judgment for that of the board on curriculum issues absent evidence that the board has acted in an arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable manner (Appeal of Keen, supra; Appeal of DeGroff, et al., supra).

The record before me indicates that respondent properly exercised its discretion in deciding that the book is appropriate for tenth graders. In accordance with its policy, the principal activated the book selection committee comprised of parent, teacher and school representatives. In doing so, the principal created a vehicle to address whether the book at issue was appropriate given the age and maturity of the students (Appeal of Little, 30 Ed Dept Rep 154; Appeal of O'Connor, 29 id. 48, aff'd sub nom. O'Connor v. Sobol, 173 AD2d 74). I note that the decision of the committee was made only after the committee reviewed the book and other written evidence and heard testimony from petitioner's son and others. In addition, respondent board members also read the book and heard oral presentations from petitioner's son and others. Based upon these facts, I cannot find that respondent's actions were arbitrary and capricious.

Petitioner also requests that I review respondent's textbook selection policy. It is not entirely clear from the record whether petitioner requests a review of the district's initial selection policy or the challenged book policy. In any case, petitioner has failed to demonstrate that either policy is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Accordingly, I will not substitute my judgment for respondent.

Finally, the record indicates that although the book is on the district's approved book list, students are given the option to choose an alternative selection. Therefore, students are not required to read the book if they find it offensive.