Pennsylvania school library policy draws book ban comparisons

play

Despite objections from teachers, parents and staff, and a legal threat from the ACLU over free speech concerns, the Pennsylvania school district will move ahead with a controversial library policy giving residents the ability to challenge books available in schools.

A 6-3 vote from the Central Bucks School District on Tuesday night enacted Library Policy 109.2. Opponents say the policy is a de facto book ban for materials related to the LGBTQ community and people of color, while supporters say it ensures access to age-appropriate material that falls in line with the district’s educational goals.

Board directors Karen Smith, Tabitha Dell’Angelo and Dr. Mariam Mahmud were the dissenting votes that followed hours of sometimes heated public comment from almost 30 community members. Only a small few voiced support for the policy.

Book bans are on the rise: What are the most banned books and why?

More: An Iowa public library roiled by book banning debate temporarily closes with no director

Any official challenges to books will have to wait until the board votes at a later meeting on how the policy will be implemented through the district.

The policy sets criteria for the selection, removal and replacement of books. School officials said it doesn’t seek to censor any particular community, pointing to safeguards like a protection for “classics” and replacing removed books with new ones that touch on similar subject matter but without age-inappropriate content.

The policy has been lambasted over the course of several board and committee meetings since the library policy first started appearing on meeting agendas in early 2022.

Any resident living in the school district could challenge a book in one of its libraries, giving what an ACLU representative in May called an “unlimited” discretion for people to go after books they don’t like and poses serious free speech concerns.

Other organizations, such as the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania and the National Coalition Against Censorship, have also called the policy a pathway to book banning.

‘A hard book to read’: Book about WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans blocked in Wisconsin

LGBTQ books are being banned from school: Here’s how kids can still read them.

How does Central Bucks’ new library policy work?

The policy gives a general outline of who can challenge a book and how, but it doesn’t say whether a challenged book will be immediately removed from bookshelves. Those specifics will be hashed out at a later meeting.

The policy states that any resident in the nine municipalities that make up Central Bucks can issue a formal challenge against a book in a school library.

First, the district will try and resolve the challenge informally through a phone call or other meeting.

The person who challenged the book can then move on to a formal challenge to the district by filling out a form that will include the specific sections being challenged as inappropriate for the grade level the library serves.

The complainant can also offer suggestions for replacement books to the one they are challenging.

Making waves: Why you should read these 31 banned books now

‘It’s embarrassing’: ‘Reading Rainbow’ host LeVar Burton fires back at rise in banned books

The challenge form will also ask if the person wants to have the book reviewed for removal or simply ask their child not be allowed access to the book. Dell’Angelo and other board members say the district has always allowed parents to restrict access to books for their own children, however school board President Dana Hunter said prior to Tuesday’s vote that parents had complained that the policy was not enforced.

The “district-level library supervisor or superintendent’s designee” will determine whether the challenged book meets the district’s “principles of selection,” which is a term that is not clearly defined within the policy itself.

The policy focuses on age-appropriate material and especially seems to target explicit descriptions of sex and generally prohibits for all grades “visually or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts.”

The major determining factor for whether a book will be removed is its “appropriateness of the resource for its intended educational use and intended audience of minor students,” the policy states.

Hunter and Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh have previously said that review process built into the policy will mean materials are reviewed by district staff and will avoid any undue book removals.

Related: Margaret Atwood attempts to torch unburnable, $130,000 ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ book with flamethrower

Stuart Woods: Stone Barrington novelist dies at 84

Is Central Bucks’ policy a book ban?

The Free Speech Group, a nonprofit public policy organization, defines a “book ban” as one of the most widespread acts of censorship in the country, with a specific focus on children’s literature.

“Book banning, a form of censorship, occurs when private individuals, government officials, or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists, or bookstore shelves because they object to their content, ideas, or themes,” an entry in the group’s First Amendment Encyclopedia states.

Oftentimes, the books are challenged on the broad basis that they are obscene, although the Supreme Court has given school districts more latitude in what they can restrict as long as it is not “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

The ACLU, Education Law Center, NAACP, PFLAG and a drove of community members who gathered at a press conference prior to Tuesday’s meeting said the language in the policy leaves the door open for books to be challenged because of ideological reasons.

State chapters of the various national organizations rallying against the policy, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, have said the decision on which book gets removed remains with a single person, making the policy a mechanism for book banning.

During a press conference held before Tuesday’s vote, Julie Zaebst, a senior policy advocate at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the district was “caving to a small group of vocal parents” who want to control what other people’s children read.

Alton Brown’s tips changed how we cook: This is the single biggest thing he wants you to try.

Best selling books list: USA TODAY’s Top 150 weekly best sellers

Zaebst said the policy appears to be vague “by design” to give school leaders broad reach and raised concerns that the policy will target books focused on marginalized communities.

Much of the concern and outrage against the policy follows several controversial decisions by the district in recent months, which brought accusations of discrimination and an anti-LGTBQ environment in Central Bucks schools.

In May, the district directed staff to remove Pride flags they may have on display and eighth-grade teacher Andrew Burgess was allegedly suspended from Lenape Middle School for giving a bullied transgender student information on harassment resources outside of the district.

“This is really troubling from a legal perspective and also devastating from the perspective of our youth’s health and well being,” Zaebst said. “It also tells us a lot about what’s behind this book ban that references sexual content. It’s not very hard to connect the dots between this policy and other school district actions that have a clear LGBTQ bias.”

“Using the pretense of policy to effectuate censorship that will disproportionally impact marginalized students is wrong, inequitable, inherently discriminatory, and violates section 1F of the code of conduct for our school board members,” said Lily Freeman, a sophomore and transgender student at CB East, at the press conference.

“The proposed book and censorship in the new policy have been pushed using false narratives as advocated by a few, to justify educational censorship aimed at controlling free speech and limiting access to many people, who likely aren’t even intended users or readers of the materials they want banned.”

Barack Obama’s summer music, book recs: Harry Styles, Bad Bunny, ‘Velvet Was the Night’ make the cut

Exclusive ‘Star Wars’ excerpt: Leia and Han Solo get hitched in ‘The Princess and the Scoundrel’

The library policy has also arisen as a group called Woke PA formed near the end of 2021 and set its sights on “sexually explicit” books in various school districts across Bucks County and other areas of the state.

The group’s website includes a list of about a dozen books, mostly featuring fictional characters and nonfictional interviews of LGTBQ individuals.

Woke PA typically relies on small excerpts taken from the works it wants out of school libraries for being obscene and pornographic.

The landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. California, established a three-prong test, known as the Miller test, to determine if a work is obscene.

The Miller test generally focuses on whether the community at large would consider a pornographic work, explicitly describes or depicts sexual acts, and if it has any scientific, artistic or political merit.

The main caveat in the Miller test, however, is that the works have to be taken as a whole, not just small excerpts.

Critics also have pointed to the policy’s book selection process, where library staff and administrators will consider what material comes into the library, as kind of preemptive book ban.

While administrators have repeatedly maintained that the materials will be reviewed by its professionals, critics say the district has ignored comments from those same library administrators when developing policy 109.

20 sizzling summer books: Jennifer Weiner, David Sedaris, Michael Mann’s ‘Heat 2’ and more

More: Humans of New York fave ‘Tanqueray’ and David Baldacci have bestselling new books this week

Lucabaugh on Tuesday added that the administration will develop a committee of “multiple viewpoints” to further ensure the policy is not abused.

“It is very important, to protect the fidelity of the process, that we have a committee comprised of educators who make up multiple viewpoints. And I’m asking the board, that if in fact this is enacted, my job as superintendent is to take the time necessary to develop that committee so that that mission can be accomplished and we can do this in a manner that is not subjective and is in keeping with the intent of the policy,” said Lucabaugh prior to the vote.

Tuesday’s vote also drew the attention of state Sen. Maria Collett, D-12, of Lower Gwynedd, who responded to the vote with an emailed statement saying “homophobia and transphobia are at the heart of this policy.”

“Though proponents claim this policy is about parental choice and protecting innocents from graphic sexual imagery, the language is much, much broader. Moreover, most of the examples offered to support this and similar book bans feature LGBTQ characters and relationships,” Collett said.

More: All the new cookbooks (and easy recipes) we’re looking forward to this summer

5 new books this week: Comprehensive Vladimir Putin biography, Elaine Castillo essays

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: