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Central York students, fed up over book ban, plan to issue administrators an ultimatum

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Central York High School students, caught in the middle of a second book ban in as many years, say they increasingly feel like the adults in the room.

“It’s really frustrating,” said junior Tristan Doud, one of five young activists who sat down with The York Dispatch on Wednesday evening to share their perspectives on the controversy. “It’s like: What are we supposed to do?”

The students plan to issue administrators an ultimatum: They will protest outside the school until the district returns the two banned books — “Push” by Sapphire and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas — to the high school library.

[l-r]: Favor Gabriel, Laura Littlejohn, Naomi Smith, Zachary Smith, and Tristan Doud of the Panther Cultural Celebratory Affiliation from Central York High School in W. Manchester on Wednesday, Apr. 19, 2023

Junior Favor Gabriel said students from two different groups, the Panther Anti-Racist Union and the Panther Cultural Celebratory Affiliation, recently asked for a meeting with school officials. They’re still waiting for a response from Superintendent Peter Aiken’s office.

In a written statement to The York Dispatch, district spokesperson Nicole Montgomery said Thursday that the administration “has no outstanding student meeting requests.”

This disconnect, the student activists say, illustrates their frustration.

“You’re not listening,” said junior Laura Littlejohn, who added that students have repeatedly tried to speak with administrators and board members. Much of what they have to say falls on deaf ears, she said.

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The students were given some hope after a March board meeting in which Aiken appeared to apologize for his handling of the book ban. A week or so later, they met with Aiken and other district officials.

Despite that, the books are still banned and the school board is considering new policies that could lead to the removal of even more books.

“They admitted they made a mistake,” Gabriel said. “When you make a mistake, you apologize for it and you fix it.”

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The five students, who came to The York Dispatch’s office to share their experiences, said they’re angry that they once again need to fight an administration restricting their access to knowledge. Many of them were actively involved in protests in 2021, when administrators sent teachers a list of materials — most of them from creators of color — that were banned from classroom use.

Doud said this new ban was done in secret. It feels like the school is actively trying to deceive its students, he said, and students must do something or the behavior will continue.

“We shouldn’t be the ones having to deal with this,” he said. “It’s not something that we should have to worry about.”

In defiance, the teens are already reading “Push” and plan to read any other books the administration chooses to ban.

Freshman Naomi Smith said “Push” specifically is powerful because of how its teenage protagonist deals with abuse. The student pointed out that many students share similar experiences. Removing books like “Push,” she said, silences their stories.

Gabriel said the true message of “Push” is hope. That is worth fighting for, she said.

Favor Gabriel, 17, a junior at Central York High School, speaks during Central York School District’s planning meeting at Central York School District Educational Service Center in Springettsbury Township, Monday, April 17, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In the meantime, the school board is considering several proposals that would establish policies allowing parents and other community members to challenge specific teaching materials. One of the ideas under consideration would create a content rating system for all materials in the district’s school libraries.

In 2021, Central York was at the forefront of a nationwide surge in school censorship. Today, school book bans are far more common.

According to the American Library Association, more than 2,500 different books were challenged at various school and public libraries in 2022 — an increase from 1,858 in 2021 and 566 in 2019.

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The five students who spoke to The York Dispatch said they want their administrators to consider the impact such sweeping bans have on them. They pointed out that the district already has mechanisms in place for parents to restrict their children’s access.

Gabriel said students deserve a voice in the matter.

“We’re the ones actually reading the books,” she said, “and the ones actually getting the lessons from it.”

In the absence of an open dialogue with administrators, the students plan to speak out in the only venue available to them: public protest.

For now, Montgomery said, the district plans to revisit the two books that were removed from the library once new policies are adopted. Until then, she said, the books will stay off the shelves.

“During this period, the books will not be placed back into circulation,” she said.

Tristan Doud, on left, and  Zachary Smith, on right, of the Panther Cultural Celebratory Affiliation from Central York High School in W. Manchester on Wednesday, Apr. 19, 2023

The administration, Montgomery said, “stressed the importance of keeping communication channels open to build connections and a path forward.”

Students, however, said the district has acted mostly in secret. Most of them heard about the book ban second-hand.

“We didn’t hear anything about it at all,” Gabriel said.

And they don’t believe the district is listening to them now.

“They’re hearing us,” said senior Zachary Smith, “but they’re not listening to us. Because hearing is a passive act, but listening takes effort — and they’re not doing that.”

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All five students said they feel the roles at Central York are reversed. They feel like adults having to explain to children what censorship is and why it’s wrong.

The students are happy that some board members have come to their aid — they specifically pointed to Amy Milsten and Rebecca Riek — but are disappointed that so many others seem indifferent or are actively trying to hinder their education.

[l-r]: Favor Gabriel, on left, with Naomi Smith, center, and Laura Littlejohn, on right,  of the Panther Cultural Celebratory Affiliation from Central York High School in W. Manchester on Wednesday, Apr. 19, 2023

These five students say a book ban in which certain materials are deemed offensive but others with similar themes and content aren’t is absurd. The actions of school officials feel completely random to the teens.

Zachary Smith, for example, pointed out that although “Push” was banned by the district, another novel with sexual themes — Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate” — is part of the 10th grade English curriculum.

“To say, ‘oh that book is fine’ when [characters] die because they are having sex on a horse and they orgasm too hard — What?” Zachary Smith said. “But someone dealing with sexual assault and healing from it: That’s not OK?”

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Montgomery, when asked specifically about “Like Water for Chocolate,” said the district received inquiries about its placement in the curriculum but no formal challenges.

“‘Like Water for Chocolate’ has guidance and support from a teacher,” the district spokesperson said.

The students, however, say they believe many adults in the district aren’t trying to protect children but to push an agenda.

“Don’t think about what they’re trying to feed you,” Gabriel said, of book ban proponents, “because obviously what they’re feeding you is lies.”

— Reach Meredith Willse at or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.