The simmering controversy over the removal of a book from eighth-grade English classes at Farragut Middle School this past December boiled over when a teacher resigned last month.
In her Feb. 17 resignation letter, Adrian Forman recounted the chain of events leading to her decision to leave, which began with the removal of the book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie.
Schools Superintendent Valerie Henning-Piedmonte, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Melissa Szymanski, and middle school Principal Jennifer Spirelli halted discussion of the novel after an eighth-grader’s parents complained that a teacher read “the n-word” aloud from the book during a virtual class.
Teachers and community members objected to the district administrators’ action during a school board meeting on Dec. 21.
Forman, who was on leave when the Alexie book was removed, had been a leave replacement English teacher at FMS since 2018, the same year she earned a master’s in teaching from Pace University. Her salary was $74,112, according to district documents.
The 51-year-old has been a resident of Hastings for 11 years. She is the mother of two sons — a junior at Hastings High School and a 2019 graduate of the high school. Before teaching, she was a professional editor and writer.
Forman’s resignation appeared on the school board’s agenda for Feb. 22, along with a three-sentence memo from Spirelli informing Henning-Piedmonte that Forman had resigned, effective March 5. Forman’s own resignation letter was not posted.
During the first public comment period of that Zoom meeting, Forman stated that the board had censored her speech by not posting her resignation letter. Forman said she would read it aloud. School board president Lauren Berman said that was forbidden because of the district’s rule against discussing personnel matters in public.
In the resignation letter, Forman objected that neither Henning-Piedmonte nor Szymanski had responded to a letter that 14 eighth-graders, calling themselves “Students for Free Speech,” had sent to teachers and administrators about the Alexie book’s removal.
During the Feb. 22 school board meeting, Forman called Henning-Piedmonte’s lack of response “reprehensible” and “inexcusable.” She added, “If that’s their definition of leadership, I strongly disagree, and it’s fortunate that I’m in a position to say, ‘I won’t be a part of this.’”
During her remarks, Forman was cut off. Later, the board voted to accept her resignation, although trustee Jeremy Galland said Forman should have been allowed to read her resignation letter, or it should have been posted online.
Spirelli, who wrote to the 14 students, told the Enterprise on March 1 that she consulted with Szymanski as she composed the letter, and showed the letter to Henning-Piedmonte before sending it.
“I put an incredible amount of thought into that letter and it came through many drafts,” Spirelli said.
Henning-Piedmonte told the Enterprise on March 1 that since she became superintendent in 2019, she found that parents would “jump over” principals to write to her about building-level issues. So she instituted the practice of asking whoever was the most knowledgeable about a situation to reply.
“It made sense for Ms. Spirelli to communicate with the students about the particular details,” Henning-Piedmonte said about the Alexie book. She stressed that her decision to not write to the students “wasn’t done out of disrespect.”
On Feb. 23, Forman received a letter from Henning-Piedmonte that assigned her to “home with pay” until March 5. Forman said she was unable to log into her school account later that Tuesday.
In her resignation letter, Forman wrote that another book — Christopher Paul Curtis’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” — had also been removed.
In Feb. 24 email to the community, Henning-Piedmonte wrote that “No books were ever banned. We were responsible educators and took the time to analyze our practices in light of our current context. When questions were raised, administrators and teachers reviewed our pedagogical approaches to sensitive topics and will continue to do so.”
Henning-Piedmonte also stated her support for students’ voices. She concluded, “Spirited debate and disagreement are truly necessary to preserve our fragile democracy. You won’t agree with every decision made. You won’t often have all of the information that went into a decision. Some of the information is confidential and cannot be disclosed. But, you do have my guarantee that any and all decisions made will be in the best interest of the district as a whole.”
As for “The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963,” it was removed from the fifth grade’s civil rights unit this year, according to a Feb. 26 email to parents from Szymanski, Spirelli, and the middle school’s “fifth-grade team.”
According to the letter, a middle school Diverse Book Committee concluded the book was culturally responsive “in terms of its social justice orientation and representation of characters.” While the committee decided the book should remain on the grade 5 reading list, the fifth-grade team decided not to use it this year.
The letter also stated, “The selection of novels used each year is at the discretion of the fifth-grade team and tends to rotate from year to year, based on student needs and cross-cutting curricular concepts. At no point was this book banned or removed from the curriculum.”