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After months of outcry from parents, employees, students, and the ACLU Pennsylvania, the Central Bucks School Board on Tuesday passed a new library book policy that many are viewing as a book ban.
The board voted 6-3 in favor of the policy, which aims to keep books that a yet-to-be-determined group might deem “inappropriate” for unspecified “sexualized content” out of school libraries. It also opens the door for community members to challenge books they find inappropriate. Books that make it through the challenge process would be removed from library shelves.
The policy is unprecedented for Pennsylvania, according to the American Library Association.
“We did not have a problem in CBSD. This policy creates a problem,” said board member Tabitha Dell’Angelo, who opposed the policy.
About 100 community members, parents, teachers, librarians, and students rallied before the board meeting in a last-ditch effort to plead with the board to not pass the policy. They were joined by representatives from the NAACP of Bucks County, ACLU Pennsylvania, the Education Law Center, and PFLAG Bucks County.
Julie Zaebst, senior policy advocate for ACLU Pennsylvania, said the policy “amounts to censorship and disempowers parents and students.”
She added, “The vagueness of this policy is by design, it’s what allows the superintendent to proclaim, ‘This isn’t a book ban,’ at the same time as we know terrified teachers are removing books with real literary merit from their classroom libraries out of fear.”
Much of the policy is about a review process. It uses vague, undefined terminology for the book selection criteria, including “sexual content” and “implied nudity.”
The vague book selection criteria have left many employees confused about which books they can recommend to be approved. It’s also unclear who will decide which books will make it to the shelves, simply identifying them as “superintendents designees,” and who will review the books that are challenged by community members.
Following the rally, the crowd filled the board room to capacity. Librarians, parents, and students gave public comment, overwhelmingly opposed to the policy.
Chris Kehan has been a district librarian for the past 13 years. She emphasized a concern brought by many: The policy sows distrust of librarians and educators to know what is appropriate for students.
“This proposed policy is not about the kids,” Kehan said. “It’s about the adults. It’s about those parents who are uncomfortable talking to their kids about real-world issues.”
Board members Karen Smith, Tabitha Dell’Angelo, and Mariam Mahmud put up a fight against the policy, asking the board to clarify undefined terms and hold it back for another discussion.
But the other board members persisted, charging forward after leaving many community members’ questions unanswered. After the final vote, the crowd immediately yelled “shame, shame,” stood, and dispersed.
Robbin Danko has worked in the district for 35 years, and as a librarian since 2004. She left the board meeting in tears.
“I’m just sad for my students … It’s my thing to rush out and buy all of the books. I go to The Doylestown Bookshop during my prep periods, during my lunch, and I get them on the shelf the same day they come out,” Danko said.
“And I’m just afraid now … because we were told we have to put out our order lists and let everybody review them first. And I’m just afraid it’ll be months and months before those kids who live to read will be able to read.”
Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh, in an interview with WHYY News on Tuesday, stood his ground. He said the policy is not a book ban, but “seeks to identify things that are age-inappropriate.”
When asked how the policy differs from a book ban and what a book ban would look like, Lucabaugh declined to answer, saying he didn’t want to speculate.
The battle over books began around November 2021, when an anonymous site called Woke Pennsylvania was created, with a list of books in Central Bucks School District libraries deemed as “sexually explicit.”
Many fear the policy will target mostly LGBTQ-related content, like many of the books listed on the Woke Pa website. In a March board meeting, a group of Central Bucks parents read excerpts from books on the site, and some asked for the district to create a new book review process.
Lenape Middle School students were anguished after their teacher Andrew Burgess, who is known as an advocate for LGBTQ students, was placed on a sudden leave of absence this past semester. The Lenape principal also told teachers not to use students’ correct gender pronouns for their end-of-year certificates.
Michaela Lovekin, 15, just graduated from Lenape, and attended the rally on Tuesday.
Michaela said they saw their peers’ face retribution for protesting. Some students were told they couldn’t come back into the building, some were threatened with truancy, Michaela said.
“Everyone was so scared to even go outside, to go out and do anything. It was only those brave students out there protesting every day,” Michaela said.
“And I must admit, I was terrified to go outside. I wanted to go, but I was scared… So I’m happy to be here today and actually do something.”
In May, Superintendent Lucabugh said it was inappropriate for teachers to hang Pride flags in their classrooms. The district also made elementary classes about puberty virtual and optional, after directing school counselors to divide students by the sex they were assigned at birth, not their gender identities.
During Tuesday’s rally and public comment portion, parents also criticized the district’s plans to hire the Philly-based Public Relations firm, Devine and Partners.
Michelle Wire has three kids currently in the district.
“It’s very indicative that rather than getting to the root of the problem, really, really listening to the community, understanding our cry for diversity and inclusion… instead of it, they’re going to try to cover it up. It’s not surprising at all. Disappointing, but not surprising,” Wire said.
The board ended up approving the new contract, with an estimated budget of $15,000 a month for the period of July 2022 to June 2023 – a total of $180,000.
“We want to make it firmly known that we will not stop. We’re not going away. This is incredibly important to all of us here and to the students, to have that freedom to decide what they read.”
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