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Proposed Central Bucks library policy targeting ‘sexualized content’ spurs worries about sweeping book removal

The policy could eliminate classics ranging from "A Tale of Two Cities" to "Romeo and Juliet," said a retired teacher. The debate is the latest in a series of controversies in the district.

Central Bucks School District Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh is applauded by school board president Dana Hunter (right) and vice president Leigh Vlasblom (left) after criticizing “false narratives” circulating in the community during a May 10 board meeting. The board is now considering a library policy that some fear could result in sweeping restrictions on books available to students.
Central Bucks School District Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh is applauded by school board president Dana Hunter (right) and vice president Leigh Vlasblom (left) after criticizing “false narratives” circulating in the community during a May 10 board meeting. The board is now considering a library policy that some fear could result in sweeping restrictions on books available to students.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Now a new issue is roiling the Central Bucks School District: A push to prohibit books in school libraries with depictions of sex acts — both visual and “explicit written descriptions” — that some worry could result in a sweeping removal of books.

The Republican-dominated school board is expected to take up the proposed library policy during a special committee meeting Thursday night. The policy, which calls for more control for parents, specifies that in libraries at every grade level, “no materials ... shall contain visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts” or “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.”

It also requires that books being added to libraries first gain approval from the school board and that a library supervisor read books before proposing them — standards that some described as prohibitively burdensome.

Katherine Semisch, a retired English teacher in Central Bucks, told school board members during a meeting last week that the language prohibiting sexualized content “pretty well takes out” an array of literary works, including A Tale of Two Cities, The Canterbury Tales, Romeo and Juliet, Dracula, The Odyssey, East of Eden, and Madame Bovary.

“So that’s it for the classics,” she said.

She also questioned how board members — who “weren’t elected based on your literary experience or training” — would decide whether to approve new books, expressing concern they could be prompted to “seek out alarmist corners of the internet to see what doubts, suspicions and fears others have devised.”

» READ MORE: A Bucks County school district dropped its diversity program. Black families say the district isn’t acknowledging racism.

The proposed policy appears to borrow language from one put forward by state officials in Texas. It comes amid a surge in challenges to books nationally, including some focused on LGBTQ characters that have drawn particular attention as GOP politicians and conservative activists have accused public schools of “indoctrinating” children around the topics of gender and sexuality.

The debate over library books is the latest in a series of controversies in the Bucks County district, which has been under fire for actions community members have decried as hostile to LGBTQ students, from removing Pride flag to edicts regarding what pronouns may be used.

Board president Dana Hunter and policy committee chairperson Lisa Sciscio did not respond to emailed questions Wednesday, including about who authored the policy.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said the policy, which she reviewed before speaking with The Inquirer, was misguided.

“It appears to me that it’s a policy not intended to develop a robust collection that serves a wide variety of readers’ needs, and in fact is designed to exclude materials that might well meet the information needs of students ... by arbitrarily fencing out materials based on a very vague description of sexual content,” she said.

Caldwell-Stone said the language “risks excluding material with the lived experiences of persons who are gay, transgender or queer, and may even provide an opportunity to remove books that have previously been found to be appropriate for the library in the past.”

» READ MORE: These are the most commonly banned books in U.S. schools

The board’s policy committee didn’t take up the issue during its meeting last week. But on Tuesday, it called a special meeting for Thursday to review the library policy, along with others related to classroom resources.

In a message to the community Tuesday night, the district acknowledged that it had called for the removal of Pride flags from classrooms, which it said had become a “flashpoint for controversy and divisiveness” in schools. (During a school board meeting last week, the superintendent, Abram Lucabaugh, faced criticism for likening the flags to political statements.)

The district is also grappling with protests at Lenape Middle School, where LGBTQ students have been calling for the reinstatement of a suspended teacher, Andrew Burgess, whom they saw as an ally. A petition supporting Burgess claims he was suspended for supplying a trans student with a phone number to call if they were being bullied.

The district hasn’t disclosed the reasons for Burgess’ absence, though it said in its statement Tuesday that “all faculty and staff must adhere to a process for reporting potentially harmful events and situations.”

» READ MORE: Central Bucks students say district killed production of musical ‘Rent’

Any assertion that administrators suspended a teacher for advocating for LGBTQ students is “categorically untrue, and disturbing,” the district said in the Tuesday night message — which also accused an adult and two minors supporting the protests of causing “chaos” by bringing pizza onto school grounds last Thursday, spurring administrators to call the police. Protesters said the incident was blown out of proportion.

Central Bucks also announced this week that its sex-education lessons for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders would now be offered online, rather than in person. Earlier this spring, administrators had told school counselors that transgender students would have to attend the classes in line with their sex assigned at birth, take the lessons alone, or opt out — a directive that marked a shift from past practice, and drew immediate questions from counselors, according to one who spoke with The Inquirer.

“You can’t say we’re not discriminating” when “that’s exactly what we’re doing if we tell a nonbinary or trans kid if they can’t participate in the group along with their gender identity,” said the counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns of retribution from the district.

The proposed library policy follows school board meetings earlier this year in which community members spoke out against books with sexually explicit content. Among the opposed books were a number with LGBTQ themes that have been the focus of challenges in other districts and states across the country.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cited Gender Queer and In the Dream House — both memoirs featuring LGBTQ characters — in calling last year for statewide standards to prevent “pornography” in public schools. In response, the state’s education agency this spring produced guidance for school districts that appears to be the source of some of the language in the Central Bucks policy.

While the “sexualized content” language doesn’t appear in the Texas guidance, both policies share a focus on “avoiding inappropriate material,” and nearly identical provisions for school board approval of all new library materials and “opportunity for parent review.” The Texas connection was first reported by the Bucks County Beacon, a progressive news website.

» READ MORE: Hey, Central Bucks: Classrooms shouldn’t be “apolitical” | Opinion

Librarians said the Central Bucks policy likely would greatly reduce the number of new books that could be added, given the requirements that the district’s library supervisor read every proposed book and that the school board then grant approval. They noted that libraries may add hundreds of books in a given year.

“How is one person supposed to read all 300-plus books on each of 23 schools’ library lists?” Chris Kehan, an elementary school librarian in Central Bucks, asked during last week’s policy committee meeting. “That is as unrealistic as this policy.”

The proposal also calls for librarians to create a master list of all material for parents to review. Kehan questioned how librarians would supply such a list to parents, noting that many district collections have more than 25,000 books — and that library catalogs are already online.

Semisch, the retired teacher, told board members the policy would not only restrict library collections, but intensify pressure on teachers to “self-edit” rather than face allegations of violating the rules. She said the district should instead direct families to speak with their children about what books are appropriate for them — “just as we always have done.”

“Your job isn’t to avoid controversy,” but to serve “all of the students in our community,” she said. “That means a wide array of books. Lots of books. Including new books.”