Wisconsin: Waukesha Schools Preserve Student Access to Sexually Frank Novel

The Waukesha School District in southern Wisconsin grappled over the summer with a parent’s demand to restrict student access to the book Looking for Alaska, and to require express parental permission for any student to read it. John Green’s coming-of-age novel tells the story of a young man who leaves home for an Alabama boarding school and his encounters with Alaska Young, a female character described in Publishers Weekly as a “mostly male fantasy—a curvy babe who loves sex and can drink guys under the table.”[1]

The book, intended for readers age 14 and up, is available on the shelves in two of Waukesha’s three middle schools and all three of its high schools. But according to a written complaint submitted to the district by parent Ellen Cox, Looking for Alaska “is nothing short of pornography and filth."[2]

Cox led the battle to restrict access to Green’s novel after her daughter, a student at Waukesha South High, brought it to her attention from a list of Advanced Placement readings for the teen’s  English class. Cox has also sought restriction or removal of the novels Chinese Handcuffs and The Kite Runner for passages she considered too sexually explicit or violent.  

The district’s ‘consideration committee’ (composed only of school staff) reviewed Cox’s complaint and heard testimony for and against the novel at a public hearing in July 2014. The hearing drew the attention of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which issued a public statement supporting unrestricted access to the book.[3]

Cox told the committee, "My husband and I read through the book and decided it was not the book for [our daughter],"[4] who will be a junior at Waukesha South in the fall. Cox went on to denounce the "sexual descriptions in it -- page after page. It was filled."[5] She concluded, "We didn't give teachers permission to expose our kids to these things."[6]

Cox explained to the committee her view of parents’ role in discussing sexual issues with their children:  "I don't want my 15-year-old to have to read about having sex…They don't need to hear about oral sex other than from their parents.”[7]

Karen Tessman, a parent whose child attends Waukesha West High School, joined Cox in attacking the novel:

"You are exposing them to concepts that they might not be ready for," Tessman said, referring to the language, drinking, smoking, and sex. "Not all of them are ready for those discussions. We didn't give the committee permission to teach our middle school students how to give blow jobs. That's something they should be exposed to as adults or when the parents feel the children are ready."[8]

Committee members did not embrace the opposition’s argument. School psychologist Maria Trainor praised Looking for Alaska for giving young people opportunities to understand other people’s realities: "Books challenge us to discuss things that we don't necessarily agree upon," she said. Malena Koplin, a media specialist at Waukesha West High School, defended the novel and placed it in the context of adolescents’ typical awareness: "In the book there's obviously kids doing stuff you don't want teenagers to do, but we know they're thinking about it and in some cases doing these things.”[9]

Others in the community also expressed support for the novel. One local news source noted,

 “Dale Ritterbusch, a Waukesha resident and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater professor, said he's finding that students don't have the ability to deal with real world issues due to ‘many censorship practices.’ He added that censorship blocks exploratory thinking and that the book has many ‘positive virtues.’"[10]

Following public comment the consideration committee voted, unanimously, to keep the book unrestricted.

Cox, unhappy with the outcome, said she would appeal the decision, a process which will require consideration of the novel in the coming school year by the entire Waukesha School Board.

"I've come this far, I'm not going to turn back," Cox insisted. "We don't have a problem with the book being in the school. I just believe it needs to be behind a counter where children cannot have access unless they have a parent's permission. That's all we ever wanted."[11]

Waukesha West Principal David LaBorde, chairman of the consideration committee, and School Board Vice President Barbara Brzenk, both said that Cox’s appeal was unlikely to change the outcome. Brzenk said she believes most Board members “don't want to get in the business of censorship.”[12]

Perhaps thanks to the controversy, local news sources report that Looking for Alaska “is so popular right now, that there's not one available at a public library throughout all of Waukesha.”[13]



[1] Review, “Looking for Alaska,” Publishers Weekly, February 7, 2005, accessed August 7, 2014 at http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-525-47506-4.

[2] Christopher Kuhagen, “'Looking for Alaska' will remain in Waukesha School District's libraries,” Waukeshawnow.com, July 28, 2014, accessed August 4, 2014 at http://www.waukeshanow.com/news/Looking-for-Alaska-will-remain-in-Waukesha-School-Districts-libraries-268973251.html.

[3] “Wisconsin parent requests ban of 'Looking for Alaska' at Waukesha South High School,” StarTribune.com, July 24, 2014, accessed August 4, 2014 at http://www.startribune.com/local/268655322.html.

[4] Christina Palladino, “Parent wants book banned from Waukesha School District,” WISN.com, July 11, 2014, accessed August 4, 2014 at http://www.wisn.com/news/parent-wants-book-banned-from-waukesha-school-district/26893994#!bvugFs.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Edgar Mendez, “Waukesha panel rejects parent request to ban 'Looking for Alaska',” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 25, 2015, accessed August 4, 2014 at

[7] Kuhagen, “'Looking for Alaska' will remain…”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mendez, “Waukesha panel rejects parent request…”

[10] Kuhagen, “'Looking for Alaska' will remain…”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Palladino, “Parent wants book banned…”

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