Student Action Results in Decision by School Board to “Unfreeze” Anti-Racist Resources in Central York, PA

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Diversity, Office for Intellectual Freedom

How do educators talk to children about traumatic events in the news? Good teachers respond to national topics, curate resources, and educate students on the issues in an age appropriate, thoughtful and broad manner. That’s what Central York School District educators were doing in the complex aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. But the school board tabled any discussion of the issue and inclusion of resources because of concerns that teachers were leaning too heavily toward “indoctrination.” 

What was the controversy?

A resource list created by a school district diversity committe that included books such as This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell and So You Want to Talk About Race Ijeoma Oluo, films including the James Baldwin-based I Am Not Your Negro, a CNN/Sesame Street town hall about racism, news articles and online guides, and sub-links to reading materials such as I Am Enough by Grace Byers, Skin Like Mine by Latashia M Perry and We Want to Do More Than Survive by Bettina L. Love.

The resources on the list were “frozen” until they could be vetted by the board. In August 2021, the Central York High School principal sent an email to teachers, with the subject line, “Banned Resources,” and instructions to “Please see the attached list of resources that are not permitted to be utilized in the classroom.”

Enter the will of the students.

A Central York school club, the Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU), started holding daily morning protests and attending school board meetings to express their concerns publicly. 

The ban of the entire diversity resource list and the student protests started making national news and catching the attention of activists and authors.

The president of the York County Libraries issued a statement in support of the resources. “We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the decision of the Central York School District School Board to blanket ban or “freeze” over 300 resources — children’s picture books, K-5 books, middle and high school books, videos, webinars, and web links suggested by the district’s diversity education committee over a year ago.”

ALA’s Support

ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) began receiving reports from teachers, librarians, and educators in and around York County seeking support and resources. Kristin Pekoll, OIF Assistant Director, explains some of the nuances of collaboration between the American Library Association, local institutions, and state library associations like the Pennsylvania Library Association. “When ALA receives requests for support from librarians and educators, we respond with an open ear. Listening is the first, and often most important thing we can do. We often follow the lead of the professionals who are on the frontlines of the situation. Not only do they know their communities, institutions, and colleagues best, they have the most at stake.” 

ALA considers not just the immediate accessibility status of the resources, but the big picture implications of any influence to political relationships, funding sources, and employment stability. Kristin has often joked in State Intellectual Freedom Network meetings that we don’t want ALA to be “a bull in a china shop.” 

Conversations are important. ALA reaches out to the state chapter to discuss the specific area, any underlying controversies, or troublesome relationships. It’s important to get perspectives from multiple people and strategically think about the most supportive action, or inaction, that causes the least amount of harm. 

When asked about the Central York School District case, Kristin was pleased to see the positive supportive response from the York County Libraries. Local partners often have significantly more influence with decision makers than a national organization. It’s most important to amplify student voices whose First Amendment rights are at stake and to gather support for the resources and educators. 

The CYSD Board Response

While the Central York School District Board of Education did reverse the “freeze” on diversity resources, their official statement still held to the theory that the issue was not about banned books. 

Importantly, this was not a ban on books. No materials were removed from our libraries, as the vote from November 2020 provided continued use of any resources on the List which were previously being used within our schools. The intent was to create a process for collaborative discussion of List resource concerns, as raised by parents. … While we thought we could handle this process expeditiously, we failed to do so. …

What we are attempting to do is balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content. To that end, we recognize the intensity of opinions on all sides of these issues, and we are committed to making this long delay right.

In discussing the terminology of a ban and a challenge in an article from Yahoo! Deborah Caldwell-Stone explained, “A ban is when action has been taken to close off access permanently to that material. So, you could argue against that, because the materials were still under review and not officially banned. But the inaction by the board is amounting to a ban – especially for a group of students who might graduate before ever having access to them.”

What can you do?

Take action by supporting the freedom to read, reporting censorship and staying informed about these important issues.

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