A popular English teacher in Texas will face possible criminal charges, after a student's parents complained to police that a ninth-grade class reading list contained a book about a murderer who has sex with his victims' bodies.
Kaleb Tierce, 25, is being investigated for allegedly distributing harmful material to a minor after the student selected Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God" off the list and read it.
Tierce, a third-year teacher and assistant football coach at Jim Ned High School, has not been arrested, but his case has caused an uproar in this West Texas town of 700 people. Last week, more than 120 parents and students crowded into a meeting where the school board voted to keep Tierce on paid leave.
Most parents say Tierce should be reinstated, regardless of whether the book is too graphic for teens.
"He's a great teacher and coach and motivates the kids like no one else can," said Chris Garcia, whose daughter was in one of Tierce's classes. "If you're trying to protect your kids from things in books, you may as well turn off the TV and video games. You try to protect them as much as you can, but these days kids are just exposed to so much."
Tierce, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, declined to comment when asked by The Associated Press about the allegations.
Some students and athletes have worn armbands to school and football games emblazoned with Tierce's initials, hiding them under clothing. Others said teens were meeting secretly to decide how to help the teacher they believe did nothing wrong.
"He was the only one who understood us," said Patrisha Ramirez, 15. "He would joke around. He would make English interesting, for once."
In Tuscola, south of Abilene, "Child of God" was on a list of titles compiled by all of the high school English teachers for a pre-Advanced Placement class.
Although administrators' approval was not required for the list, school officials have since removed the book because they deemed it inappropriate for ninth-graders.
The book tells the story of a town's outsider who is falsely accused of rape, then begins killing people. The character ends up living in a cave with his victims' decomposing bodies. The 1974 novel "plumbs the depths of human degradation," according to its back cover.
The parents of one ninth-grade student filed a police report on Oct. 1 with the Taylor County Sheriff's Office earlier this month. Before contacting law enforcement officials, they complained to the teacher and principal, said district Superintendent Kent LeFevre, who declined to reveal their discussions.
The superintendent placed Tierce on administrative leave on Oct. 9.
Sheriff's Sgt. John Cummins said the case will be turned over to the district attorney once the investigation is complete. Distributing harmful material to a minor is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 (2,823 EUR) fine.
Book controversies in schools and libraries are nothing new, but it is rare for teachers to be disciplined over them.
In 2005, a seventh-grade teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was suspended and later transferred to another school after a parent complained about a classroom reading of "Telephone Man," a story about prejudice containing racial slurs.
Parents have sought to ban various books, including John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, as well as books on Cuba or gay penguins, according to the American Library Association. Last year, schools or public libraries received nearly 550 requests to remove books, the Chicago-based association said.
"When you get to book cases where someone has a difference of opinion, you have to honor these things," said former teacher Linda Bridges, who is president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, a 57,000-member union, of which Tierce is not a member. "But if a book has been vetted and approved by the district, then the teacher has done nothing wrong."