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Superintendent on book ban: Central York will try 'to make this right'

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Central York Superintendent Peter Aiken on Monday asked for patience and grace from residents amid criticism of the way the district recently removed several books from the high school library.

UPDATE:'Why can't we have our own mind?': Central York speaks out on book ban

He said during the board meeting that he wasn’t the superintendent in 2021, when the school board banned teachers from using about 200 materials on the Diversity Resource List, but he claimed a process wasn’t followed at the time.

“So if nothing else, we were going to follow a process this time,” he said. “Was it a fool-proof process? No.”

He said the district has learned lessons over the past three or four weeks. 

“There’s no playbook for this,” he said, adding this isn't unique to Central. 

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Board member Amy Milsten said the administration used the regulations to review books that were available at that time.

“That (administrative regulation) will not be used going forward,” she said. 

The policy committee will write a new policy specifically for library books, which will take some time. 

She added the board found out about the books around the time the public did and that the administration admitted they are learning. Milsten said this is “another growth area.”

She and board member Rebecca Riek agreed what parents think is right for their children may not be right for all children. 

“Look out for your kids," Riek said. "But I don’t think it's fair to say that it's not OK for other kids."

Board member Amy Milsten during Central York School District’s regular board meeting at Central York School District Educational Service Center in Springettsbury Township, Monday, March 27, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

She also said she is in favor of transparency because everyone has the right to know what books are challenged and be given a chance to speak their opinions about them before a decision is made. 

Riek added the administration admitted a vetting process for these books will be extremely difficult and any input would be welcome. 

“Students have constitutional rights, just like we do as adults,” she said. “And when we do remove something from circulation, that is possibly a violation of student rights.”

Aiken said the review committee, which was made up of two administrators, two teachers and a librarian, did not include a social worker or counselor. He said in hindsight, that could have helped. 

School board President Kyle King, left, and Superintendent Peter Aiken during Central York School District’s regular board meeting at Central York School District Educational Service Center in Springettsbury Township, Monday, March 27, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“We’re going to attempt to make this right,” he said. 

He asked listeners to help find a way to work together and solve this, as almost 6,000 students watch the community discuss this. 

— This story is a developing story. More will come soon.

Reported earlier: A few dozen students arrived at Central York High School on Friday in red shirts and hoodies to protest school administrators' removal of at least two books from the library.

On Monday night, some of the students plan to attend the district's school board meeting to voice their concerns. None of the student activists could be reached for comment Friday, during classes.

"You guessed it — wearing red," the school's Panther Anti-Racist Union wrote in an Instagram post in advance of Friday's demonstration.

The student protesters' crimson attire stood out against the drab gray of Friday's overcast skies. On social media posts, the students noted that their efforts weren't targeted at Central York administrators alone. They highlighted a growing nationwide trend of schools censoring books and cutting curriculum based on the religious or political objections of a vocal minority of parents.

PARU mobilized in 2021 in response to a broader book ban that targeted dozens of works, predominantly from creators of color. More recently, administrators removed two books — including Sapphire's "Push," an account of childhood abuse and pregnancy — from the high school library.

Indeed, the students' red attire was inspired in part by the red book cover of a recent edition of "Push," which was adapted into the 2009 Oscar-winning film "Precious."

Last week, Superintendent Peter Aiken announced a set of new policies aimed at creating a rating system for all books in the school library system.

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It remains unclear what specifically the policies will entail.

The school board's Monday agenda was not available online Friday afternoon, but a policy revision that gives parents, guardians and students the ability to review instructional materials was expected to be read a second time.

Central York students were right in their larger national view of the problem.

According to PEN America, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for school book bans — with Central York leading the pack thanks to its 2021 book ban — based on data collected between July 2021 and June 2022. But Central York is far from alone in its censorship efforts.

According to The Associated Press, Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is backing a bill that will ban certain books from all school libraries in the state if a book is challenged successfully in one district. Attorney General Jeff Landry, who is running for governor in Louisiana, named nine books considered inappropriate for children; seven were LGBTQ narratives. The Associated Press also reported that more than 2,500 books were challenged last year versus 566 challenges in 2019. 

Closer to home, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Laurie Halse Anderson, an award-winning author, visited Central Bucks earlier this month to protest that her books and others could be banned. The issue started when the district passed a policy last year that didn’t allow sexualized content in library books. Since then, about 60 books have been challenged. 

As Central York's policy currently sits, challenges must be submitted in writing to the building principal and assistant superintendent, who will meet with the teacher and department chairperson to review the material. The challenge can be escalated to a review committee, made up of administrators and staff, to inspect the material. The final escalation steps could be moving to the superintendent and to the board. 

The revision suggests changes that would allow any parent, guardian or student to challenge the material. The challenger would meet with the teacher and building principal to resolve the matter before a written challenge. The limit was changed from just once per semester to once each semester per subject. 

Along with that policy, another one was brought back for a second reading Monday. The second policy outlines what resource materials are, from nonfiction and fiction books to multimedia and magazines, and what ad hoc instructional materials and library resources are. The policy puts the responsibility on the board to adopt all resource materials in the curriculum adoption process.

The superintendent will also report when new resources are needed. The administrator will work with staff on what needs to be adopted or changed. The policy explains that resource materials and the board-approved curriculum will be made available to the public through a website. If passed, the policy would allow the assistant superintendent to make administrative regulations for selecting the materials and procedures for reconsideration. 

The final adoption for the two policies is set for April 17.

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As the board continues revamping the policies, Aiken announced the district will create a rating system for the books in the library and identify books that families may not be comfortable with. When the system is in place, the three challenged books will be reviewed again to see if they meet the new system’s requirements. 

While the system is being built for the district, it isn’t a new idea.

In Texas, a state Republican lawmaker proposed a set of "movie-like ratings" that would require publishers to provide content ratings for all books sold to public and charter schools in the state. In Oklahoma, another Republican state lawmaker pitched a bill that would require public schools and libraries to designate a committee to review and classify the material in school libraries.

Moms For Liberty, the conservative activist group behind a lawsuit targeting an empathy-based program in the West Shore School District, has already begun rating books on its website. Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," for example, received a level 2 teen guidance warning because of its racial subject matter.

Under that system, "Push" received a level 5 rating and the other book Central York banned from its high school library, Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury,” received a level 4 rating.

The Central York School Board will meet at 5 p.m. Monday for a policy meeting followed by a 6:30 p.m. general meeting at 775 Marion Road, Springettsbury Township. The meeting can also be viewed on the district's YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWkB16bFmoScfZyxCVIuXhQ/

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.