When should a school ban a book? How Central York — and the nation — are answering that question

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

When should a school ban a book?

If you ask Central York Superintendent Peter Aiken, the answer is when students can’t be trusted to read a book independently — although he’s quibbled with the use of the word “ban” to describe the district’s removal of two books from high school library shelves.

“I cannot in good conscience put this back out there without first having a committee look at this again,” Aiken said at a school board meeting late last month.

The novel "Push," written by Sapphire in 1996, was based on the author's experiences when counseling teenagers.

For Aimee Emerson, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, the answer is an unequivocal never.

“Here’s why: Because every individual is different,” said Emerson, who herself faced four book challenges as a middle school librarian. Those books survived the challenges.

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From her vantage point, every student — their cultural background, their home and their school — is different. They should all be represented on the library’s shelves.

“Someone should be able to come in and find one book that they are offended by,” Emerson said, “because that means I am doing my job.”

Central York school officials have grappled with the fallout of two separate rounds of book bans in recent years.

Students wearing red as a way to raise awareness about book banning at Central York High School in Springettsbury on Friday, March 24, 2023.

In 2021, the district garnered global attention after The York Dispatch reported that administrators sent teachers a list of materials — most of them from creators of color — that were banned from classroom use.

Most recently, school officials banned two books — “Push” by Sapphire and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas — from its high school library. A third book, "Sold" by Patricia McCormick, survived a parent’s challenge.

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That second ban once again prompted public outcry from students and public at large. Each Friday, student activists from the Panther Anti-Racist Union wore red in protest and have turned out to recent board meetings to demand a reversal.

“Why can’t we have our own mind — our own voice?” student Favor Gabriel asked the elected school board members last month.

Central York High School junior Favor Gabriel, 17, speaks 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

In the wake of the most recent book ban, PARU also led a student petition to reinstate the books and is leading a book drive to collect books — not just the banned ones — to distribute to students across the district.

They’re expected to turn out again to Monday night’s school board meeting, where several proposals for handling controversial books are expected to be considered and possibly voted upon.

School officials fell silent on the issue — at least publicly — after last month’s meeting. Messages left seeking comment for this article were not returned as of Friday.

One possible solution pitched by Aiken and other Central York officials is a rating system for all materials in the school’s library system. Details for how that would actually be accomplished remain scant. Nationwide, several school districts — particularly in more conservative areas — have considered such systems.

Moms for Liberty, one of the groups behind a recent lawsuit over empathy-based curriculum in the West Shore School District, created one such rating system. Under that group’s system, “Push” and “Sold” received a 5 rating for “explicit references to aberrant sexual activities.” “A Court of Mist and Fury” received a 4 rating.

Emerson said she’s heard talk of such rating systems in Pennsylvania but, to her knowledge, no districts have implemented one. The association raises concerns whenever it learns of a district planning to implement such a system.

Central York High School English teacher and published author Patty Jackson speaks 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

School librarians already prohibit pornographic materials, she said, and provide students with guidance on age-appropriate materials.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Libraries Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, said school libraries are meant to be a safe place to learn. Students naturally have questions about race, sexual orientation and gender identity that books can answer.

“When we think about rating systems, they’re uniformly administered by private entities,” she said.

Caldwell-Stone noted a court ruling in Virginia that dismissed an obscenity law because it violated the First Amendment, among other things. Even in the context of the movie industry, with ratings issued by the Motion Picture Association, efforts to restrict what minors can watch have largely been rebuffed in the courts.

FILE - A pile of challenged books appear at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021. Attempted book bannings and restrictions at school and public libraries continue to surge, according to a new report from the American Library Association. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“That’s something that is often forgotten here,” she said. “Minors have a First Amendment right.”

The lines get blurred, Emerson said, noting how a Tennessee school district banned "Maus," a graphic novel retelling the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a mouse.

More recently, The Associated Press reported that one Florida charter school forced a principal to resign over the alleged distribution of pornography in art class.

The pornography in question?

A photo of Michelangelo's David sculpture.

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Both Emerson and Caldwell-Stone said it’s appropriate for parents to raise concerns over what their children read, and for schools to distribute age-appropriate materials. However, they said a transparent process should be established to give the community a chance to weigh in on any banned books.

Caldwell-Stone suggested that any review committee reflect the diversity of the school and the community at large. The "whole students' needs" should be considered, she said.

Panther Anti-Racist Student Union organizer Edha Gupta speaks at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Gupta is a Central York High School senior. Bill Kalina photo

Emerson said parents have always had the option — including in Central York — to work with school librarians to limit their child’s access to certain books.

“We know that every book is not for every reader and every family,” she said.

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The problem emerges when one parent's objection is acted upon, thus depriving access to every other student and family. Emerson said such bans also send a message to children about what is and is not acceptable. For example, “Push” tells a realistic story about a young woman grappling with an abusive family. Removing it sends a message to other students who may be dealing with the same problems.

“This is the scary part,” Emerson said. “The minute you exclude is the minute you are telling someone that they are not good enough.”

The Central York School Board will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday at 775 Marion Road in Springettsbury Township. The meeting can be attended in person or viewed through the district's YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWkB16bFmoScfZyxCVIuXhQ/.

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