What parents can do when schools ban books

When I decided to move back to my hometown of Philadelphia after many years in the South, the only thing I really cared about were the schools. As a newly single mom with four young kids, I knew public education was going to be our family’s best option. And when I polled family and friends in the area, some of whom were educational professionals themselves, one district kept coming up over and over again: Central Bucks.

An online search afforded me various high ratings and rankings of “top this” and “best that,” and along with the recommendations from trusted people in my life, and a location close to my children’s family on both sides, I found a home and we all settled in.

But fast forward almost nine years and this school district is why I want to move away. The most recent reason? The school board recently passed a “library materials policy,” which many parents in my community are calling a book ban.

This new policy will allow books that an as-yet-to-be determined committee deems inappropriate to be pulled from shelves and will focus on “age-inappropriate content.” The policy says that for middle-schoolers, for example, the superintendent will “seek to prioritize” books that “do not contain other sexualized content, such as implied descriptions of sexual acts or implied depictions of nudity.”

The policy allows any resident to challenge a book in a school district library, at which point, this committee will determine whether the book is “inappropriate” and should be removed.

The superintendent and the director of the school board said in an email sent before the vote that this is not a book ban, but rather is “intended to prioritize materials that support and enrich curriculum and/or students’ personal interests and learning.”

Chris Kehan, a 32-year veteran teacher-librarian in the Central Bucks School District, told me librarians now have to submit their book list for approval from the superintendent or designee to determine whether any of the policy’s specified sexualized content is present before those titles can be added to the school library. “We’re worried we won’t be able to get the books to the teachers in a timely manner so that they can do their jobs,” Kehan said, after sharing the extensive process she uses to choose the books for the children in her elementary school.

According to Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, the Central Bucks School District “library materials policy” isn’t technically a book ban. But based on what he’s seeing in school districts across the country, “these policies are designed to try to speed up and ease the facilitation of the removal of books,” he said.

Asked to comment for this story, Abram Lucabaugh, superintendent of the Central Bucks School District, said in a statement from the school district that they “strongly believe in the integrity of prioritizing age-appropriate and non-gratuitous content for our students, aligned with curriculum and pedagogy, that reflects the diverse experiences and interests of our students, no matter where they are on their own scholarly, cultural, and personal journeys.”

But what is deemed age-appropriate and non-gratuitous, and more importantly, by whom?

“We really need to consider the kind of tools we are handing over to school officials,” Friedman said. “Librarians have professional ethics, extensive training, professional association membership, and a code of conduct that guides how they develop collections. What we’re seeing undermines the power and discretion of teachers and librarians, and replaces it with the decision-making of a limited number of people based on their narrow ideological precepts.”

As a biracial Asian American mother raising multiracial kids, two of whom are LGBTQ, I will do whatever I can to make sure they see themselves in the books at their schools. I want my children to read a variety of books to both see themselves in literature, and to see how others live, how the world actually works. I want books to challenge them. I don’t want their books to be challenged.

There are actions parents can take to help navigate this situation, which is popping up all over the country. I spoke to the experts about what caregivers should do if their school is banning or appears to be heading that way.

Get to know the policy. Kehan suggests carefully reading the policy so that you fully understand what is being proposed or has been passed. These policies should be available on your school board’s website. In reading the policy closely in my own school district, I learned much more than if I had simply listened to the chatter around town. The more I know, the easier it is to ask the right questions and know what we’re facing.

Speak up. After becoming familiar with the new policy, email your school board members with your questions and concerns, specifically asking for clarification about parts that are unclear or vague. Show up at your school board meetings to share your concerns. It’s important that the school board understands that the policy does not represent the values of the community.

Look for support. Miah Daughtery, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s vice president of academic advocacy and literacy, suggests that you rally like-minded individuals in your community to show up in different ways. “How parents can advocate is different than the teachers and librarians; the community’s voice is important,” Daughtery said. This is not just about your public school library. While a book ban or library materials policy may have already passed, “we have to realize that this is part of a chipping away at a suite of democratic liberties that are slowly becoming more at risk,” Friedman said.

Read at home. There’s a reason why school librarians and educators pick the books that they do, so I will ensure that my kids will be reading them, whether they end up in the school library or are removed and replaced. And at the suggestion of Kehan, I’ll be reading them, too. Books can create the opportunity for kids (and their parents) to have hard conversations about important topics. And, as Daughtery says, seeing characters who look like you can help reflect your lived experience and make you feel not alone. But they can also help you understand, exist with and talk to people whose lives reflect a dissimilar experience than your own.

As a parent of four soon-to-be adults, that’s an important part of living in this world. If my public school isn’t going to do the job they should be doing, then I will make sure I’m doing it.

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