New York middle school pulls teen magazines from library

Friday, February 13, 1998

HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. (AP) – Do condoms work in hot tubs? School officials decided such frank talk about sex is too steamy for sixth-graders, so they pulled several magazines aimed at young readers from a middle school library.


That left some students and parents at Hauppage Middle School unhappy, civil libertarians worried about censorship, and a teacher’s union considering legal action.


“We have a right and an obligation as educators to protect the children from sexual material that we deem to be age-inappropriate,” said Paul Lochner, the Hauppage schools superintendent who yanked the popular magazines Seventeen, Teen and YM.


“At this age, children get mixed messages in what we are teaching on one hand and what the magazine is teaching on the other,” he said Thursday.


Lochner removed the magazines after a complaint from a parent. The school board of the suburban, middle-class community about 30 miles from New York City backed him unanimously on Tuesday.


That despite a Board of Education panel that voted 4-3 to keep the magazines.


“It’s very scary when the superintendent and the board convene a committee [to investigate the complaint] and they ignore their recommendations anyway,” said David Greene, program director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression.


“They ignored the process they set up,” Greene told the First Amendment Center. “And the reason you have the process is to ensure that students’ First Amendment rights are protected. …That protection has been completely bypassed by the actions of the superintendent.


“I would have followed the committee’s advice because they believed these magazines were appropriate for this middle school and also, these magazines provide information that children sometimes don’t receive from their parents.”


What has some parents upset about the magazine? How about questions in recent issues: do condoms work in hot tubs? (Yes, though a gynecologist recommended it be donned on dry land.) How to tell if you’re pregnant? (Get tested.) Other issues have included masturbation, AIDS and birth control.


“The questions are real,” said YM spokeswoman Natalie Bzezensky, who says tackling such topics is a service to young, sometimes confused, readers. “They’re submitted by readers.”


She and other magazine representatives say sex is a fact of life, but that they never encourage sexual activity.


“Since the ’60s we’ve included information about sex,” said Julie Stonberg, a spokeswoman for Seventeen. “But it’s not our assumption that you’re a teen-ager and you should be having sex, at all.”


The problem, said Monsignor Ellsworth Walden of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, are advice columns like YM‘s “Ask Anything: the Lowdown on Life, Sex and Your Bod.”


They “convey the attitude that sex among teen-agers is perfectly normal,” said the priest, who mobilized parishioners to attend the board meeting.


“There probably are good articles in there,” he said, “but some of them convey values that are in direct conflict with what we believe.”


The 285-member Hauppage Teachers Association is investigating a possible legal challenge, said spokeswoman Catherine Killian. “We feel this is a censorship issue,” she told The New York Times in today’s issues.


Joyce Sullivan, the middle school librarian who served on the panel that wanted the magazines to stay, said the magazines answered teen-ager’s questions on such worthwhile topics as peer pressure, conformity and divorce.


The three magazines, along with Rolling Stone, are occasionally banned by schools, said Cynthia Robinson, associate director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom.


The Chicago-based library association believes that “decisions about what people are going to access should be made by themselves and by their own parents,” she said.


Some students and parents agreed: families, not school officials, should decide what’s appropriate.


“As long as our moms say it’s OK, that’s all that matters,” said Tasha Arrascue, 13.


Mom Connie Arrascue: “Sometimes kids are afraid to ask their parents about things that may be embarrassing. I’d rather have my daughter read it here in the magazine.”


The local chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union worried that the action could set a precedent, spokesman Don Parker said. “A few people are making a decision for all. This could very well spill over into book censorship.”


“There’s nothing dirty with these magazines at all,” said Shante Venturino, 12, who said she reads Teen and Seventeen for the hair and makeup tips.


— FAC staff contributed to this report.