Cumberland Valley School District has been hit with formal requests to pull three books from the school library system, an effort that has been promoted by at least one local legislator amid increasing politicization of school reading materials nationwide.
While it will take some time for the district to review and decide the books’ fate, school board members and political observers suspect that the issue is the tip of the iceberg, as conservative activists animated by the COVID-19 pandemic begin to migrate to other matters.
At Cumberland Valley’s board meeting last week, local activist Kelly Potteiger – who has also been a vocal opponent of masks and other COVID-19 mitigation measures in the school district – announced that she was challenging three books in the district’s library system as being unsuitable for students.
The three books being challenged are “Push” by Sapphire, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, and “L8r, g8r” by Lauren Myracle. The three books are all coming-of-age novels that deal with particularly heavy subject matter, including frank and graphic discussions of sex, drugs, suicide, and other adolescent struggles.
All three routinely appear on lists of the most frequently challenged and banned books as recorded by several organizations, including the American Library Association.
Potteiger is not alone in her attempt to censor the materials. A day prior to the board meeting, state Representative Barb Gleim, R-Cumberland, discussed the matter on the Facebook page for the local chapter of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty.
Commenting under a post shared from conservative media personality Candace Owens that suggested schools were “disseminating pornographic materials to minors,” Gleim wrote that she had contacted Cumberland Valley, and that “if the board members see it with their own eyes and do not anything about it they are just as culpable. ”
Gleim also claimed that “Rush (sic) Sapphire has been taken out of high school until further process review.”
In a text message, Gleim wrote that she had “referred the parents to the school administration” and had contacted CV board members to apprise them about the concerns.
According to Cumberland Valley Superintendent David Christopher, the three books in question are still in circulation at Cumberland Valley and will remain so during the review process.
“Restricting students ‘rights to access information could be seen as censorship by the school district and could be a violation of students’ First Amendment rights if the district is overly broad in its removal of material,” Christopher wrote in an email to PennLive.
“Because of this, we are required to ensure that the removal of library resource is warranted using fairly narrow criteria and that the potential harm of retaining the book in the collection outweighs students’ rights to access it,” he added.
The three books will be reviewed by a committee, chaired by the district’s curriculum director and including district personnel and at least one district parent, according to Christopher. The group will read each book in its entirety and make a final decision.
The challenged books are in the high school library, according to Christopher. Students from other schools and grade levels could request the books, Christopher said, but librarians would review the materials before sending them between schools.
Speaking at last Monday’s board meeting, Potteiger said she found the books vulgar enough that she would not be comfortable reading them to her own children.
“If I can not read the book out loud to them, they should not be able to have it in the public library,” she said.
The situation at Cumberland Valley has not occurred in a vacuum. Challenges to library books, as tracked by the American Library Association, are happening at their highest rate in over two decades.
The issue goes beyond the local level, with state and national political figures seizing the opportunity to press policies that would limit school curricula and reading materials, particularly regarding race relations and sexuality.
Books bans have recently proliferated in states where there have been legal movements to prohibit teachers from discussing certain topics with students.
Like Owens, the Republican governors of Texas and South Carolina have both alleged the teaching of pornographic materials in order to support censorship, The New York Times reported earlier this year. A Florida law barring gender and sexuality references in the classroom, which opponents have dubbed the “do not say gay” policy, is being pursued in several other states, according to NPR.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spokesperson accused opponents of the policy of being sexual “groomers” who were priming children for pedophilia, an accusation that has also been used by conservatives in Tennessee and Virginia to support book bans in those states, according to The Washington Post.
The phenomenon, board members and political observers say, results from conservative activists who coalesced around masking and pandemic restrictions now funneling their energy into other actions.
“First it was masks, now it’s moving into books and CRT [critical race theory] and some other things. The group is the same though, ”said Cumberland Valley School Board President Heather Dunn.
“From my perspective, life on the board over the last two years, during COVID, has become much more politicized,” said Dunn. Although she is the board’s lone Democrat, Dunn cross-files with both parties and said she does not see her position as being partisan, at least until recently.
Dunn, who has served multiple terms on the board, said she could not recall a book challenge having occurred before, at least not in such a public manner. The group that appeared Monday to back Potteiger’s challenge is largely comprised of the same individuals who began attending meetings at the outset of the pandemic, Dunn said.
“There’s a small group of parents who have consistently been engaged in many of the high-visibility topics,” said Cumberland Valley School Board member Brian Drapp, who preceded Dunn as board president, serving in that role through this past November.
While input is always appreciated, the board cannot manage affairs based solely on the political views of a single, vocal group, Drapp said.
“They’re just one of many stakeholders we have to consider in making a collective decision,” Drapp said.
At a national level, “there is increased overlap that is ideologically based between anti-mask groups, the anti-critical race theory folks, the folks that are challenging books based on sexuality,” said Sarah Niebler, a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Critical race theory refers to an academic discipline regarding racial inequalities, which conservative media suggests is influencing K-12 curricula with left-wing biases. The issue often combines with concerns over sexuality and LGBTQ content to form a singular political bloc for conservatives, as PennLive reported occurred in the Camp Hill School District board elections last year.
While liberals and conservatives have always tended toward opposite ends of certain topics, “I do not think we’ve seen the kind of overlap” that currently exists with ideological narratives spreading down to local issues, Niebler said.
“It’s getting much harder to define what is national-level politics and what is local-level politics,” Niebler said.
None of the three books being challenged are new. “Push” was published in 1996, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” in 1999, and “L8r, g8r” in 2007.
Studies on adolescent behavior based exclusively on book consumption are relatively few, with one of the most complete being a study of 282 students in Texas carried out by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson.
That study found that reading books with explicit or challenged content generally did not have an impact on the likelihood that a student would exhibit antisocial behavior, poor school performance, or other adverse outcomes; association was found only with mental health symptoms in a small subset of students who read large volumes of books and already had significant mental health challenges.
“The evidence suggests that, for the most part, that is not really an issue,” Ferguson said in an interview with PennLive. “Kids do not blindly mimic things that they read in books or watch on television or see in video games.”
Reading frequently-challenged books “is not necessarily associated with negative outcomes,” Ferguson said; on the contrary, students who read such books in Ferguson’s study tended to be more civically engaged.
There is a tendency among activists on both sides of the political spectrum, Ferguson said, to overstate disagreements about what moral values or perspectives children are exposed to as being measurably harmful in a medical sense.
“It’s an attempt to take a clash of world views and medicalize it,” Ferguson said.
In Cumberland Valley, Dunn said she’s noticed national political rhetoric supplanting discrete local issues for some time.
“We used to hear about things like a tax increase or a program that was being cut,” Dunn said. It’s definitely more politically-driven. It used to be more parent-driven. ”
During last year’s election, for instance, board member Mike Gossert found himself assailed by voters at a GOP primary forum who believed the district was teaching anti-white material and was “getting rid of American history” by teaching a course on Black civil rights movement, as The Sentinel reported.
In a RAND survey of school officials late last year, nearly three-quarters said that polarization over COVID-19 policies was interfering with their ability to educate students; nearly half said the same about critical race theory.