Student protesters threatened, while a new policy to censor library books looms in Central Bucks School District

Students are seen holding. a sign that says ''Bring Back''

Students protested outside Lenape Middle School on Wednesday, May 11, after teacher Andrew Burgess was suddenly asked to leave. (Curtesy of Julien Jones)

Got a question about life in Philly’s suburbs? Our suburban reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send an idea for a story you think we should cover.

Student protests in support of a Central Bucks School District teacher have been met with threats of retaliation.

Lenape Middle School students planned to protest during the school day in response to their teacher, Andrew Burgess, being placed on a sudden leave of absence on Friday, May 6.

Burgess is seen as an advocate and trusted confidante for LGBTQ students. While the reasons for his leave are still unclear, parents and students believe he is being disciplined for providing a bullied student the contact information for the U.S. Department Office of Civil Rights.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The protests also arrived after Lenape principal, Geanine Saullo, told teachers to use students’ gender pronouns and names in the school’s database, Infinite Campus (IC), for their awards and certificates. For many trans or non-binary students, what appears on IC is not their correct gender pronouns or names.

After students gathered in front of the Lenape building on Thursday morning, school leaders threatened them with truancy.

According to district parent Larissa Hopwood, who said she was there to support the students in their decision to protest, a school social worker said the students would be marked truant after missing three days of school, and that they would have to go to truancy court.

Hopwood said she didn’t think that was accurate, so she pushed back in front of the students. The counselors then clarified that students would not directly go to court.

“They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, well, we have a meeting. And then if we can’t figure out a way to resolve it, then it would move on to court,” said Hopwood.

“If I wasn’t there getting the correct information, then the kids would feel like they had to go.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Vic Walczak, ACLU Pennsylvania Legal Director, said “threatening criminal prosecution for non-violent protest activities is definitely intimidating and raises serious first amendment concerns. The school has tools under its own disciplinary code to address the matter and threatening criminal prosecution seems excessive.”

That wasn’t the only threat from school leaders made on Thursday.

Principal Saullo was filmed warning students that she would get the police involved if they posted videos or photos from inside the school building on social media.

“I’m telling you right now, if you have a picture or a video on your phone from inside this school building, you better delete it — this second,” said Saullo. “Take your phone out and get rid of it. I find out one picture or video is on your phone, it will be sent to the police. Delete it now.”

While it’s not exactly clear who the principal was talking to, the ACLU is concerned she was pointed at the protesters.

If that’s the case, said Walczak, “The principal is way over the legal line. The District’s authority over off-campus social media is limited, as confirmed by SCOTUS’s decision last year in our case, B.L. v. Mahanoy. This is political speech, which Justice Breyer singles out for particular protection.”

The student instagram account, @justice_for_burgess also posted a video of Principal Saullo holding students’ pride flags.

Just last week at Unami Middle School, three teachers were told to remove the pride flags from their classrooms. Principal Saullo has also suggested teachers “self-censor” their classroom libraries, according to one anonymous Lenape teacher.

One high school student who was expressing support for the protests, came to Lenape with pizza and flyers about another protest for Burgess on Friday.

When that student and two other middle school students offered the free pizza and flyers to students during their lunch hour, school administration called the police.

According to the Bucks Courier Times, the principal also said she wanted the high school student suspended.

That day, Saullo emailed Lenape parents, saying there was an adult and two minors who “trespassed” onto campus and “attempted to distract lunch service by offering various fast food items outside of the cafeteria in the parking lot.”

When the police arrived, the high school student, Hopwood, and her child who attends a Cyber charter in the district, were asked to leave the vicinity.

Central Bucks Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh said during Tuesday’s board meeting, of the “narrative out there,” that “the district has arbitrarily and capriciously punished an employee for being a supporter of LGBTQ students, that narrative is offensive. It’s categorically false.”

Evi Casey, 7th grade student at Lenape who was part of the Thursday morning protest, said more students joined in on their Friday protest after school, after all the attention they received on Thursday.

Friday turned into more of a party, than a protest.

“I had a few friends that were, for a while, scared to show pride stuff … But once we had the party, all of them came out and they had a great time,” said Casey.

Casey said she saw some of her friends, for the first time, wearing pride flags and rainbows.

More censorship on the horizon, but ingrained in policy

A new district-wide policy for library book selection was officially made public on Tuesday, April 10.

The policy would allow the school board to decide what books are placed in all district libraries and allows the board to remove books already in libraries.

If a book is removed from the library, it will not be up for reconsideration for at least 10 years.

The policy states, “Selection of materials is an ongoing process that includes the removal of collections deemed by the Board or the District-level library supervisor or Superintendent’s designee to be no longer appropriate and the periodic replacement or repair of materials still of educational value.”

A large part of the policy focuses on describing material that is considered “inappropriate.” For middle and high schools, that means “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.” For elementary schools, “explicit or implied written descriptions of sexual acts.”

Maura McInerny, Legal Director of the Education Law Center, said the policy violates the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech. She said ELC is reviewing the policy and informing district parents of their rights.

“While certain limitations are constitutionally permissible, this is not what is occurring when students are being told that they cannot borrow books from the school because they have not been “approved,” said McInerny.

Pennsylvania schools have banned books on over 450 occasions in the last nine months, according to a new report from PEN America. That is the second-highest total in the United States, behind Texas.

“What we are seeing in Pennsylvania is a purge,” McInerny said.

Kate Nazemi is a parent of two students in the district and has been a vocal opponent of the new policy for months.

“The target is LGBTQ [literature] because in a lot of the young adult literature around that, it is about relationships and it’s about identity,” said Nazemi. “And you have to talk about body parts and people having romantic relationships if you’re going to talk about that experience. So it’s a sure fire way to get rid of all those books.”

Central Bucks parents have been reading passages from books they want removed from libraries since March. All of the books are listed on WokePa’s website, many by Black and LGBTQ authors, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

District teachers, librarians, and parents appeared at Wednesday’s school board meeting for their policy committee, to voice opposition to the draft.

Katherine Semisch, retired English teacher from Central Bucks West High School, said the proposed policy puts a “chokehold” on new books, partly because it requires the school board to read all the books before approval.

“The proposed policy favors elimination of content, over inclusion of content,” Semisch said.

“Is it the school’s job to edit the world, to prevent kids from learning the truth?”

She listed books like, ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and parts of the bible, as works that would not qualify for libraries under the policy.

Many are concerned about the lack of transparency from the board.

Chris Kehan is one of the Warwick Elementary School librarians.

“When was this drafted? Who drafted it? Who’s input was used? It is evident that it has been cut and pasted from something else,” Warwick said.

The Bucks County Beacon recently reported that the policy was mostly a copy of a policy by the Texas Education Agency.

Laura Ward, President of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, said she hasn’t seen a policy like this before, in Pennsylvania.

She said, “It’s heartbreaking,” especially for vulnerable students.

“If we take away things that reflect them, then we’re telling them that we don’t value them, we don’t see them, we don’t want to hear them,” Ward said.

She said the policy violates the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read”  principals, grounded in the United States constitution.

Because of the widespread moves towards censorship in Pennsylvania, the PSLA recently formed an intellectual freedom task group, to support any librarian facing threats of censorship.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal