WESLEY CHAPEL — After a Pasco County mother complained about sexual references in a novel on her eighth-grade daughter's summer reading list, Assistant Superintendent Amelia Van Name Larson picked up a copy to see what the hubbub was about.
“When I read page 13, I said, 'holy cow,' ” Larson said.
That page in “Paper Towns” by John Green mentions masturbation. The next page has a graphic sexual reference and later in the book a slang term is used to refer to teenagers having sex.
“In this situation a parent brought up an issue and it's a valid issue,” Larson said Wednesday.
Now Pasco County school officials are rethinking how they handle potentially objectionable material. School district policy allows for alternative books when a parent or student feels uncomfortable with a reading assignment, but Larson said she wants to see a more proactive approach.
She asked Vanessa Hilton, director of the district's Office for Teaching and Learning, along with two members of Hilton's staff to craft a proposed revision to take to the school board. Larson said she wants a procedure to alert parents ahead of time when their children are assigned controversial material.
“I don't want this always left to the parent at the back end,” Larson said. “That's the part where we can improve.”
Meanwhile, “Paper Towns” has been removed from the eighth-grade reading list at Dr. John Long Middle School, though Larson said that was the school's decision and not an edict from the district.
The novel came to the district's attention Friday morning after school board member Joanne Hurley checked her e-mail and discovered an irate message from parent Joanne Corcoran.
Corcoran spelled out the specifics of her concerns and didn't hold back on the book's language.
“When I read her e-mail, I immediately thought to myself, 'I have a granddaughter going into eighth-grade. Would I want her to read this?' ” Hurley said. “I gave it the grandmother test and it failed.”
School district offices are closed on Fridays during the summer, but Hurley said she responded to the e-mail and then alerted Superintendent Kurt Browning and Larson. Larson immediately began looking into the situation.
Corcoran said she zipped off that email to Hurley in a moment of anger.
“When I read her response, it was very positive,” Corcoran said. “And Kurt Browning called and left a message. I appreciate that. I appreciate them listening to me at least and making an effort to hopefully change this in the future.”
Corcoran said she might not have known what her 13-year-old daughter, Hope, was reading except the girl was unfamiliar with the word “masturbation” and asked her mother what it meant. Corcoran picked up the book and read the first four chapters.
“It's like soft porn,” she said. “It really made me angry.”
Corcoran said she had just re-enrolled her daughter at Long Middle School after home schooling her for about a year. She had removed Hope from public schools over bullying issues, but the girl needed help with math so Corcoran decided it was time to return her to the school setting.
“Paper Towns” made her question that decision. She also wonders why she was the only parent to complain.
“I hope that other parents aren't okay with it,” Corcoran said. “I'm glad they took it off the reading list, but it probably won't do anything but pique children's interest now.”
Green is a popular author for young adults and his novel “The Fault in Our Stars” was made into a movie still showing in theaters. His books see their share of controversy, and his novel “Looking for Alaska” was on the American Library Association's list of 10 most-challenged books for both 2012 and 2013.
Green could not be reached for comment through his publicist.
Meanwhile, Hope Corcoran won't attend Long Middle School when school begins in August. Instead, Joanne Corcoran plans to enroll her in Pine View Middle in Land O' Lakes.
Corcoran already checked the eighth-grade reading list at Pine View.
She is good with it.