Proposed book approval process for Central Bucks schools unclear, some parents say

School board meeting attendees wave LGBTQ pride flags

File photo: Parents and students waved LGBTQ pride flags in the air as Lena Barnhat of Doylestown said schools should not be a place for promoting sexuality. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

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A Central Bucks School District policy that outlines new criteria for library book selection is facing scrutiny from district parents, employees, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The school board made changes to the policy in an impromptu policy committee “special meeting” on Thursday, May 19, but it still leaves many questions unanswered.

Many community members and educators worry the policy will impact how and what books enter school libraries, a step towards unprecedented censorship in the district.

The changes come after the district-wide book policy was first made public last month. Some parents and educators are concerned the policy will allow the school board or district administration to decide what books are placed in all district libraries and what books can be challenged for removal based on unprecedented criteria defined by the board.

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Policy 109.2, first draft

Policy 109.2, second draft, after special meeting

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‘Shifting their responsibility’

In the transition from first draft to second draft of the policy, the board removed itself as a listed responsible party for the final decision making after library book recommendations are submitted for review. Instead the new policy would leave that decision making process up to the “Superintendent” or a “designees’ approval.” But it’s not clear who the designees would be or how they will be chosen.

In Thursday’s meeting, board member Sharon Collopy said the school board does not need to see the list of recommended books before they are purchased.

“But,” said Collopy, “the buck stops with someone.”

Kate Nazemi is a district parent who has been analyzing the policy for months.

“They just shifted their responsibility,” Nazemi said. “They saw a legal problem coming their way and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’ll just exit this scene and shift onto administration or a designee.”

Vic Walczak, legal director for ACLU Pennsylvania, said the board removing specific references to themselves from the policy “is not going to allow them to avoid ultimate responsibility for whatever kind of censorship occurs. This is a policy that’s passed by the board and the buck stops there.”

What is ‘implied nudity?’

The policy’s criteria for book selection and for books that are challenged by parents remains vague.

The criteria for book selection states:

Each item selected shall:

  1. Support and enrich the curriculum and/or students’ personal interest sand learning;
  2. Be appropriate for the subject area and for the age, intellectual development, and ability level of the students for whom the materials are selected; and
  3. For non-fiction resources, incorporate accurate and authentic factual content.

For challenged material:

“Removal of materials may be based upon the lack of educational suitability of the library material, lack of appropriateness for minors such as sexualized content, and for pervasive profanity or vulgarity. “

The policy loosely defines inappropriate material to be avoided for elementary, middle, and high school students.Elementary books cannot include “visually implied depictions of sexual acts”, “implied written descriptions of sexual acts,” or “visual depictions of nudity or implied nudity.” Middle school books cannot include “visually implied depictions of sexual acts, explicit written descriptions of sexual acts, or visual depictions of nudity. And high school books should not include “explicit descriptions of sexual acts or visual depictions of nudity.”

Nazemi points out that language is not rooted in national standards for what is considered appropriate outlined by American Association of School Librarians.

“That’s a lot of content that is defined on a whole page that is inappropriate. How do you define everything else?” Nazemi asked. She wonders, who is deciding on the literature that is appropriate, and of value to students, without referring to national standards, and how will that process be objective?

“[The district] needs to answer that question,” said Nazemi.

Walczak said vague policies offer a lot of power to decision makers.

“It gives them unlimited power and authority to get rid of whatever they don’t like. And the expectation is that once this vague policy is passed, that they are going to apply it to get rid of the materials that they’ve been targeting all along,” said Walczak.

Walczak is referencing the already existing hostile climate for LGBTQ students and allies, with, for instance, the removal of classroom pride flags, the directive to not use Lenape Middle School students’ correct gender pronouns, and the suspension of Lenape Middle School teacher Andrew Burgess, a known advocate for LGBTQ students.

The ACLU is keeping a close watch on the district’s moves, to see which books are limited, to determine whether they are violating the First Amendment.

Walczak is also concerned about the vague policies creating a chilling effect for educators. He said in cases like this, educators will fearfully self-censor before they are censored by their district.

“That’s another problem that the Supreme Court has identified with vague policies,” said Walczak. “It doesn’t give sufficient guidance to the people who are making the decisions. And in a situation like in Central Bucks, where there’s already been directives sent out that, ‘hey, we’re concerned about all this LGBTQ themed material,’ the staff who are tasked with making these decisions are going to over-censor just out of fear, out of uncertainty.”

How to know the content, before it’s in your hands?

District librarians can recommend new library books for final review before entering libraries.

But that process is confusing, said one district librarian who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the district.

Usually librarians base their book recommendations off of professional reviews, she said. But those reviews won’t tell you if there is any “implied nudity.”

She said she’s also confused about how inappropriate material is defined.

She said implied nudity “could be something like someone takes a shower, they change into their bathing suit, they are looking at their body in the mirror as it changes.”

She won’t know those details until she has it in her hands to read.

“I will not know that that is in the book until I read it and I can’t read it if I don’t own it. So the logistics of this is very, very difficult,” she said. “I’m good at reading, and I read a lot of young adult books,” but, she said, she wouldn’t be able to read the 180 new books that she usually orders every year.

Walczak said that’s another strategy to limit the number of books that are recommended in the first place.

In a statement to WHYY, Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh said the policy is not a “book banning” policy.

He added, “Nor does it seek to establish a process that would dictate that a teacher cannot use anything unless the Board of Education first approves it. Efforts to present any narrative to the contrary are detrimental, distracting, and false.”

A national movement

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

She ties the moves in the Central Bucks School District into a national movement, one that is targeting LGBTQ content.

“We’re hearing a new framing that defines any references to gender identity or sexual orientation as inherently inappropriate for minors, even the oldest of minors,” said Caldwell-Stone. “There really is an effort to try to shift the framing or move the needle on what is considered obscene for minors to including any reference to sexuality”

She hasn’t seen a policy like this yet, in Pennsylvania. Although it is inspired by a Texas policy.

“This is the first time I’ve encountered an effort by a school board to adopt a policy that is intended to limit access to information and ideas by preventing the acquisition of books that they find distasteful or controversial,” Caldwell-Stone.

The policy will be up for discussion at the next general board meeting on June 14.

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