Students’ Inquiry About Witchcraft All But Ties Library Aide to Stake : Montana: Worker fired for lending seventh-grade girls two of her own books that school superintendent found were “grossly inappropriate.”
The two seventh-graders wanted to do a report on witchcraft, and they asked library aide Debbie Denzer for her help. She steered them to the encyclopedias, and lent them two books of her own.
That was her mistake, say her bosses. No, she says--that was her job.
Denzer was fired in January for providing the girls with material that Frank de Kort, superintendent of the rural district in northwest Montana, described as “grossly inappropriate.”
One book contained graphic descriptions, drawings and photographs about witchcraft and Satanic rituals involving sex acts, mutilations and sacrificial killings. The other discussed sexual matters, and included nude drawings.
Denzer contends there is no written policy on such loans and, without one, she would be professionally obligated to do the same thing again.
She is appealing her firing to the county school superintendent, who is expected to rule in mid-May; nonetheless, she does not expect to get her job back, or find a job anywhere nearby.
She has accumulated some powerful allies: “We basically believe that if a child can understand the material given to them, they’re ready for it,” said Judith Krug, head of the American Library Assn.'s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Other supporters include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and PEN American Center, a writers’ organization.
“Instead of burning Debbie Denzer at the stake, the school authorities fired her for ‘unsatisfactory performance’ and ‘misconduct,’ ” wrote a supporter, author Alice Hoffman, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.
But there are critics as well. Almost everyone except Denzer--even her solitary defender at school, librarian Joan Gates--agrees the books were “inappropriate” for 12- and 13-year-old girls. A letter supporting Denzer’s dismissal was signed by 20 out of 21 teachers at the school.
“This is a troubling case in a lot of ways, obviously,” said Mike Dahlem, attorney for the Montana School Boards Assn. “If this right of the employees is upheld, what limitation can be placed on importation of graphic materials? There doesn’t seem to be any limitation.”
“This is not a case of an honest mistake made by a well-intentioned employee,” Dahlem argued at Denzer’s appeal hearing. “It is a case of open defiance to the adopted policies of the board of trustees.”
But Denzer’s lawyer, Dan Johns, responded that the board fired her for violating a policy that does not exist.
She “crossed a line in the sand that caused her to be fired,” he said. “The problem is, the line wasn’t drawn until she was on the other side.”
Gates, librarian at West Valley for 13 years, said Denzer was a valuable assistant and did not deserve firing. Denzer has extensive knowledge of children’s literature and often brought students books from home or from the Kalispell public library, Gates said.
But Gates thinks if Denzer had reviewed these books she would have decided they were inappropriate.
The books--"The Devil and All His Works,” by Dennis Wheatley, and “Not in God’s Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians,” edited by Julia O’Faolain and Lauro Martines--date from Denzer’s college years.
Denzer, 40, said she had forgotten the contents. She said she passed them along only because the indexes showed references to the girls’ topic, witchcraft. She cautioned the two girls not to show them to other students.
“These girls were both bright and mature, and I felt sure they could handle it,” Denzer said. “I knew that some other kids in school could not, so I told them not to show them around.”
She apologized to the parents of one of the girls--"I, too, am appalled by the contents of the book, and I am horrified that such a book would be read by children because of me, especially after I did examine it"--a few days after they complained. But she later recanted, citing emotional stress.
“Those were their words, not mine,” Denzer says now.
Parents of both girls say their daughters were greatly upset--not by the books, which they barely glimpsed--but by the thought that they might have caused Denzer’s firing.
In the end, they wrote their papers about bison.