What parents can do when schools ban books

After many years living in the South, I knew that the only thing that I cared about when I moved back to Philadelphia was the schools. As a newly single mom with four young kids, I knew public education was going to be our family’s best option. One district kept coming up in my polls of family and friends, some of them educators.

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.

Fast forward nearly nine years, and I realize why I want to leave this school district. The latest 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.”

What, if anything, is age-appropriate?

“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.”

A biracial Asian American mother of multiracial children, two of which are LGBTQ, I will do everything I can to ensure they see themselves in books at school. My children should read a variety books in order to not only see themselves in literature but also to learn from others and see the world as it is. I want books that challenge them. I don’t want their books to be challenged.

Parents can take steps to help their child navigate this new situation that is sweeping the country. I talked to experts about what parents should do if their school seems to be going in that direction.

Learn about the policy. Kehan suggests that you carefully read the policy in order to fully comprehend what is being proposed. These policies should be available on your school board’s website. I was able to learn much more by reading through the policies in my school district than I would if I just listened to the talk around town. The more I know, the easier it is to ask the right questions and know what we’re facing.

Speak up. Once you have read the policy, send an email to your school board asking questions and for clarifications. Bring your concerns to school board meetings. It’s important that the school board understands that the policy does not represent the values of the community.

Seek out 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 goes beyond your local 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.

You can 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 provide the space for parents and children to have difficult conversations about important topics. Daughtery believes that characters who look like you can reflect your life experience and make it easier to feel supported. They can help you to understand, relate and communicate with people who have lived through a different experience than yours.

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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