The Central Bucks School District is expected to vote Tuesday evening on a contentious library policy that takes aim at “sexualized content,” a proposal the superintendent declares will ensure students are reading “age-appropriate material,” but that the Pennsylvania Library Association calls one of the most restrictive in schools across the state.
Wielding signs reading “dictators ban books, not democracies,” and “love not hate makes CB great,” dozens of parents, students, community members, educators and advocates rallied outside the Doylestown school district headquarters Tuesday night ahead of the vote, calling for the board to strike the policy.
Speakers called the policy intentionally vague, and asked the district to leave it up to trained librarians – rather than a “small group of parents” – to select literature for school libraries. More than 3,000 community members have signed a petition against the proposal.
Karen Downer, president of the NAACP’s Bucks County branch, noted that books most frequently flagged for sexual content “tend to include certain themes,” including the history of Black people, LGBTQ topics or characters, and race and racism. The books also tend to be written by marginalized authors, she said.
“Parents want their children to be able to see themselves reflected in pictures and stories,” Downer said.
Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh — a champion of the proposed policy that assigns a committee to evaluate books — said in an interview Monday that the intent is not to remove books from school libraries but to create a process for the selection of new materials and for parents to challenge “gratuitous, salacious, over-the-top, unnecessary, sexualized content [in library books] that would not be age-appropriate.”
He did not list specific books that might fall into this category.
“We don’t have titles in mind, per se,” Lucabaugh said. “The policy is rooted in prioritizing and selecting age-appropriate materials for our students that align with curriculum and materials that reflect the diversity of our student experiences. We believe that it’s very important that … all of our students are represented in the things that they read in the library.”
The proposed language introduced by the Bucks County district’s Republican-dominated school board in May calls for more control from parents to contest books available in school libraries, and outlines that at every grade level, “no materials… shall contain visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts” or “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.”
If the school board passes the policy, Lucabaugh said, he will appoint a handful of administrators, teachers, librarians, and other educational professionals to develop a process for parents to challenge reading materials, and guidelines for determining what may be considered “age-inappropriate , gratuitous content” when selecting school library books.
That committee, Lucabaugh said, “would be large enough to be inclusive of multiple perspectives,” and would “eliminate the potential for any decisions to be made in isolation.” He said that school board members would not be directly involved in the selection or removal of books.
But addressing the crowd outside the board meeting Tuesday, a retired English teacher said the “policy is vague enough that librarians aren’t going to know what’s going to be OK.”
“There’s no transparency and there’s no recourse when a book is banned,” said Julie Zaebst, senior policy advocate at ACLU of Pennsylvania, adding that she’s heard from some teachers already fearing repercussions from the policy.
“We know that all students suffer when the expertise of professionals is replaced by a big politicized process that’s happening behind closed doors,” she said.
Lucabaugh and school board officials have said the policy was introduced because the school district — Pennsylvania’s third-largest — did not have one in place.
But Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, which represents libraries across the state, said Central Bucks’ proposal stands out.
“This is a pretty restrictive policy,” Buker said. “We haven’t seen this level of proposal in other school districts at this time.”
Although Lucabaugh and school board officials say the policy is a no book ban, Booker disagreed.
“It is banning books, based on one specific aspect, and not considering any other value of that piece of material,” she said.
“The policy is vague and overbroad,” said Richard T. Ting, an attorney with the ACLU.
“And we’re also talking about library books, …not required reading for classwork. These are just books in the library that are there for students, and students should be free to choose what they read. Families should be able to discuss those things with their kids, as well. It shouldn’t be up to a few people … to decide what everyone else gets access to.”
Lucabaugh countered that “it may not be required reading, but the access to [the books] is always there.”
“School districts have always established and maintained policy and boundaries around the propriety of content,” he said.
“Representation matters,” said Chris Keehan – a Central Bucks elementary school librarian who has worked in the district for 32 years – reading Tuesday from a statement from the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. “School librarians already have policies and procedures in place allowing for the review and reconsideration of books in the library collection, should a parent or staff member have concerns about a particular title.”
In a district-wide message to parents last week, Lucabaugh and school board president Dana Hunter said the policy has been “mischaracterized within our community and the press,” writing that every student “deserves to be seen, heard, cared for, included, accepted, respected, loved and, most especially, educated.”
The letter also stated that not all books containing “sexual content” would be subject to removal from libraries.
“Books such as ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison, which chronicles the real-life horror of racism and sexual abuse belong in our school libraries at an age-appropriate level,” they wrote. “So do the classics like ‘The Scarlet Letter’ or an illustrated reference book about anatomy.”
The message, said Ting, “ironically points out the problem with this type of policy.
“Like, why is it that they get to say that and make that decision?”
The Central Bucks library policy proposal comes as book bans across the nation have surged — as well as a focus on content involving LGBTQ characters and storylines. Some conservative politicians and activists have accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students around the topics of gender and sexuality.
» READ MORE: Amid nationwide challenges to sexually explicit books, West Chester school district keeps ‘Gender Queer’
The library proposal follows other policy changes at Central Bucks, including the district’s call to remove Pride flags from classrooms and shifting its sex education classes online after facing blowback for instructing transgender and nonbinary students to attend classes corresponding with their sex assigned at birth.
“It’s not very hard to connect the dots between this policy and these other school district actions that have a clear anti-LGBQ and T bias,” Zaebst said, adding that the ACLU is monitoring the district’s actions “very closely.”
On Monday, Lucabaugh said Central Bucks’ proposed policy “is not based on one genre of literature” or one intended audience. If a book containing LGBTQ characters or plotline is found by the committee to be “gratuitous and over-sensationalized,” it is required to be replaced “with a comparable book … for an LGBTQ audience,” he said. If a comparable read cannot be found by the committee, Lucabaugh said, a challenged book may remain on library shelves.
“No book made me transgender, just as no book turns my eyes from brown to blue,” Lilly Freeman, a student at Central Bucks East, said Tuesday. “Schools are a place of learning and when you take away access to diverse books, it removes safe public resources allowing kids like me to see themselves in culture, to learn about themselves, and it limits others from having reliable resources from which they can learn and utilize.”