Lancaster County parents move to challenge books, opt students out of ‘inappropriate’ content | Local News

Responding to a growing wave of concern about the content of public school library books, the Ephrata Area School District started this school year with a new, more comprehensive policy allowing parents to opt their children out of access to specific types of content.

While nearly all districts have some form of opt-out rules, Ephrata joined Warwick and Elizabethtown Area school districts in tagging and categorizing books by content areas that have been raised as concerns across the country. Topics include violence, sexual references, LGBTQ characters and more.

For some, however, opt-outs are not enough. Such is the case in Elizabethtown, where the school district is expected to vote today on a parent request to ban “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” from the library.

“Opt-out doesn’t work,” Tina Wilson said at the Elizabethtown school board meeting Sept. 13. She’s the parent who has filed two appeals against decisions to keep “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” in the district’s library, landing the decision before the school board. The book has raised concerns due to language and sexual content.

“Our kids see all kinds of inappropriate things today, all kinds,” said Wilson at the Sept. 27 board meetings. “But here’s the difference: These books are being given to our children by the professionals, by the experts. This is the blatant sexualization of our kids, by the people that we trust our children with five days a week.”

A look at some numbers

While discussion of bans and opt-outs are catching attention, and moves on both are growing, the number of bans and parents opting out still appears relatively small.

Since 2020, just one Lancaster County school district has banned a book – the graphic novel about eating disorders “Lighter than My Shadow” in Eastern Lancaster County School District – another has a challenge still pending and at least three other challenges were unsuccessful.

Pennsylvania is one of the states with the most book bans, behind only Texas and Florida with 457 bans across 11 of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts in the 2021-22 school year, according to Pen America, a nonprofit organization opposed to banning books and dedicated to promoting free expression.

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 this year, there were 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources nationwide, a number on pace to exceed the 2021 record of 729 attempts, according to the American Library Association.

And as of Oct. 13, in the Ephrata district just two parents or guardians submitted requests to limit student library access – one in Ephrata Middle School and one from Ephrata High School. The district has about 4,200 students.

In the Warwick district during the 2021-22 school year, nine students were opted out of an item in the curriculum and two had library restrictions. As of Sept. 21, for the 2022-23 academic year, seven students were opted out of material. In total, the district’s six libraries hold 96,935 books.

During the 2021-22 school year, 30 students were on the Elizabethtown Area district’s opt-out list. District spokesperson Troy Portser declined to comment on details relating to the opt-out process or the proposed ban of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

‘Not an exact science’

Ephrata’s move to a detailed opt-out policy at the beginning of the year – by administrative decision, not school board vote – was a reaction to concern about school library book content nationwide and it also furthered the district’s effort to include parents.

The move was made after “what we saw happening across the country with challenging books,” Ephrata Superintendent Brian Troop said. “We felt like with our traditional relationship, strong healthy relationship with our parents…. We wanted to give them the option to get involved.”

And giving parents control over what content students have access to isn’t new for the district Troop said. For years, he said Ephrata has offered parents the ability to opt their children out of conversations on puberty but had no formal policy on restricting access to books.

Under its new Request to Limit Library Material Access policy, Ephrata assists parents in making choices on what to limit by tagging books according to six categories: LGBTQIA+ characters, violence, religious viewpoint, sexual content, profanity and depictions of abuse. By tagging the books, they become searchable by these categories for students, parents and staff.

The district selected these categories because they were highlighted by the ALA as frequently challenged topics.

“As we’re learning, it’s not an exact science,” Troop said.

The district has not received any requests to ban books from its libraries or curriculum, Troop said.

Warwick School District, on the other hand, has since 2020 reviewed three books in either the library or curricula due to ban requests from parents. None of the books were banned.

“All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely was a curriculum challenge made in 2021 due to the book’s use of strong language, alcohol and drug use, racism and its police references. The book, which is part of Warwick High School’s 10th grade curriculum, was one of the top 10 most challenged books nationally in 2020, according to the ALA.

The book remains in the curriculum but six parents opted their student out of reading it. Warwick Superintendent April Hershey said a policy to opt out of specific content in curricula has been in place for 14 years, while a policy for opting out of library materials was put in place two years ago.

“I believe that based on things that were happening in other parts of the country where other books were being challenged, parents brought those challenges here,” Hershey said. “They … brought those challenges here to us not because students have read those books or checked them out but simply because of something they (parents and residents) read somewhere else.”

‘Culture war’ concerns

Pen America has identified more than 50 groups, such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, operating at the national, state or local levels that are campaigning and around what they see as dangerous content in some public school books.

Moms For Liberty Lancaster Pa chapter chairperson Rachel Wilson Snyder, who has children in the Warwick district, acknowledged in a social media exchange with LNP | LancasterOnline that the group is rallying parents, but she casts the effort as ensuring school districts follow already established standards.

“Moms For Liberty Lancaster Pa has asked that school districts uphold their own existing policies and existing commitments to parents by ensuring that all books and materials are in alignment with existing school standards, and we encourage parents to get more involved with reading and learning these standards in their districts,” Snyder wrote.

“Our schools already have policies regarding sexually explicit content, obscenity, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, and internet filters that prohibit content found in many books in the curriculum or library, yet these books persist in our districts – violating our own standards.”

However, American Association of School Librarians President Kathy Lester said most book challenges have been against books that represent marginalized communities – including LGBTQ authors and content.

“I do feel like it is all around these culture wars basically that have been going on across our nation,” Lester said. “There’s a lot of divisiveness across the nation and I do think there are peer groups that are aligned with essentially political parties and they are very loud … but … the majority of Americans and voters are against book banning.”

An ALA-sponsored survey of 1,000 adults between March 1 to 6 by Hart Research Associates and North Star Opinion Research showed 67% oppose book bans, she said.

Finding a way forward

To proactively address potential concerns, Warwick assembled a Library Review Committee in 2021 to review titles most frequently challenged nationwide, as well as new books.

The 20-member committee meets twice a year – in March and October – and it includes two district administrators, two school board members, three building level administrators, six librarians, three staff and four community members.

The committee reviews books in eight categories: mental health, violence/weapons, sexual content, trauma, drug/alcohol use, language, gender identity/LGBTQIA+ and religion.

Since it was established, the committee has not voted to remove any books.

Kimberly Regennas, a parent of three Warwick elementary school students and a mental health professional, is one of the four committee community members.

By reviewing Warwick’s library books, Regennas said the committee is helping parents to make decisions on what books deserve a closer look or aren’t suitable for their children.

Her background, Regennas said, helps when discussing the mental health implications of potentially traumatic content such as suicide or abuse.

“Sometimes reading a book could be the catalyst to a child being able to talk about issues,” Regennas said, adding that at different points in healing from trauma, reading about such issues could be harmful. That’s why, Regennas said, she believes what a child reads should be determined on an individual basis.

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