Central Bucks has approved a library policy targeting ‘sexualized content’ in books. Here’s what we know.
The policy, which was approved 6-3 by the school board, has been deemed by library experts as one of the most restrictive in Pennsylvania.
The Central Bucks School District on Tuesday voted 6-3 to ratify a library policy that targets “sexualized content” in school library books, and that has been deemed by library experts as one of the most restrictive in Pennsylvania.
After about an hour of public comment, mostly reflecting opposition, school board members argued about the details of the policy, including questions about its origins, and a superintendent-formed committee that would determine the process by which books would be evaluated.
Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about the policy:
What does the new library policy say?
The policy, 109.2, allows district parents to challenge books available in its libraries, paving the way for the removal and replacement of literature deemed by a committee as “age-inappropriate,” and outlines that at every grade level, “no materials ... shall contain visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts” or “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.”
In an interview Monday, Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh, a proponent of the policy, stressed the policy’s intent is not to remove books but to create a process for selecting new material and allowing the challenge of “gratuitous, salacious, over-the-top, unnecessary, sexualized content [in library books] that would not be age-appropriate.”
He declined to specify which books would fall under this designation.
Is the policy a book ban?
The superintendent says it’s not a ban, but many parents, library advocates, and civil rights groups disagree.
In an emailed message to district parents last week, Lucabaugh and school board president Dana Hunter wrote it is a “major mischaracterization” to call the policy a ban.
Districts passing similar policies have avoided using the term ban in order to sound “less extreme,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs for nonprofit PEN America. “But those of us who do work against censorship, we’ve been calling these things bans for 100 years.”
“It is banning books, based on one specific aspect, and not considering any other value of that piece of material,” said Christi Buker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association.
What are the policy’s origins?
Lucabaugh and school board officials have said the policy came about after realizing the district — Pennsylvania’s third-largest — did not have a library protocol in place.
In an email Wednesday, Lucabaugh said the policy’s language — which, in an initial draft, appeared to borrow from language put forth by Texas lawmakers — was developed by the Republican-dominated school board in committee meetings.
“The Board consulted its prior policies, policies from other districts, and resources like [Pennsylvania School Boards Association] to draft 109.2,” Lucabaugh wrote. “The draft was then discussed in multiple Policy Committee meetings — which are open to all Board members — during which the language evolved. Every Board member participated in at least one of those committee discussions.”
But during the vote Tuesday, some board members said they were unaware of the policy’s origins and authors.
“This was a brand-new policy that no one has ever seen before. And you’re telling me you don’t know who wrote the policy?” board member Tabitha Dell’Angelo asked Lisa Sciscio, chair of the policy committee, in a heated exchange.
“It was given to me,” said Sciscio, who voted for the policy, “and I know you need a boogeyman, but I’m not going to do that to anybody.”
Board member Karen Smith, who voted “absolutely no” on the policy, noted that in her seven years on the Central Bucks school board, she had “never seen a policy that sort of dramatically changed from one meeting to the other.”
Initially, the school board had received recommendations from a librarian on a potential new policy for removing a book. But the draft the board saw the next month, Smith said, was “dramatically” different.
“Usually, you’re talking about a few words here or there, a few sentences here or there,” Smith said. “And this policy looks absolutely nothing like what we had the previous month.”
Who will decide which books stay or go?
In an interview Monday, Lucabaugh said he will appoint a handful of administrators, teachers, librarians, and other educational professionals to develop parameters for parents to challenge reading materials and guidelines for determining what may be considered “age-inappropriate, gratuitous content” when selecting school library books.
That committee, Lucabaugh said, “would be large enough to be inclusive of multiple perspectives,” and would “eliminate the potential for any decisions to be made in isolation.” He said board members would not be directly involved in the selection or removal of books.
Some opposing the policy have said librarians already have policies and procedures in place allowing for review and reconsideration of library books, if concerns are raised.
How will ‘sexualized content’ be determined?
That, Lucabaugh has said, will be decided by the to-be-appointed committee.
Critics of the policy have warned that “sexualized content” is often used to restrict books involving race and racism, LGBTQ characters or plot lines, and stories written by marginalized authors. Some conservative politicians and activists have accused public schools of “indoctrinating” students around the topics of gender and sexuality.
Lucabaugh said the policy “is not based on one genre of literature” or one intended audience. If a book containing LGBTQ characters or story lines is removed from library shelves, he said, a comparable, “age-appropriate” book will replace it.
When does the library policy take effect?
Lucabaugh said in an email Wednesday the policy does not take effect immediately.
He expects initial conversations with district administrators to begin this week to convene the committee.
Who supports the policy?
Board president Dana Hunter, vice president Leigh Vlasblom, and members Sharon Collopy, Jim Pepper, Lisa Sciscio, and Debra T. Cannon voted Tuesday in favor of the library policy.
Before the vote, a small group of parents spoke in favor of the policy, with one mother thanking the board.
“This is not a ban, this is not censorship, it’s common sense,” said another.
Who is against the policy?
Board members Dell’Angelo, Smith, and Mariam Mahmud voted against the policy, requesting more information on the language’s origins and suggesting the deluge of community opposition alone should be reason to postpone the vote.
Prior to the board meeting, around 100 community members, parents, teachers, students, and advocates protested outside the district building. At the meeting, the board heard more than an hour of public comment — the overwhelming majority against the policy. More than 3,000 people have also signed a petition against the plan.
“This proposed policy is not about the kids — it’s about the adults,” said Chris Kehan, a Central Bucks librarian, who stood before the board wearing a shirt reading: “I read kids’ books. Do you?”
On Wednesday, state Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat who represents Bucks and Montgomery Counties, called the “passage of a sweeping book ban ... particularly disheartening.”
“Policies like the book ban passed by CBSD do nothing to protect the most vulnerable children in our schools, and only further legitimize discrimination and division within our community,” she said in a statement.
What do civil rights groups say?
The Bucks County branch of the NAACP has denounced the policy, and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania has called it “vaguely worded and overly broad,” adding that it “violate[s] students’ First Amendment rights and deprive[s] them of the freedom to explore the world around them.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has said it is “closely monitoring” the district’s actions, combined with other recent policy changes in Central Bucks — including a call to remove Pride flags from classrooms.
“It’s not very hard to connect the dots between this policy and these other school district actions that have a clear anti-LGBQ and T bias,” said Julie Zaebst, senior policy advocate at ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“When and if Central Bucks schools start pulling books off of the shelves, the school district can count on a fight,” she said in a statement.
Staff writer Felicia Gans Sobey contributed to this article.