High school activists get controversial book ban reversed in Pennsylvania: ‘They are heroes’

Students held frequent protests against a Central York School District resource ban — which was reversed under pressure with a unanimous vote on Monday night.
Students held frequent protests against a Central York School District resource ban — which was reversed under pressure with a unanimous vote on Monday night. (Photo: Courtesy of PARU)

A rancorous public debate over a book ban in the Central York School District of Pennsylvania came to a close on Monday night, after weeks of protests.

The board, which had placed a ban or “freeze” on a list of more than 300 anti-racist resources nearly a year ago — an issue that had faded during the last academic year but resurfaced with a vengeance at the start of school on Sept. 9 — voted unanimously to reverse their ban, bowing to pressure from the community at large, and especially to a tenacious group of students who had led the charge.

“It took five high schoolers organizing a peaceful walk-in protest for each day … to help make sure that our district heard that they, and many others, did not feel represented,’” Ben Hodge, Central York High School theater teacher and co-facilitator for the student Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU), tells Yahoo Life. “They are heroes and should be celebrated as bastions of American freedom and democracy. I want to be clear: These kids did this.”

“WE REVERSED THIS BAN. WE DID. THAT!” Edha Gupta, a 17-year-old Central York High School senior who has been instrumental in the movement — writing a local op-ed, starting a Change.org petition to end the ban and co-leading frequent protests — wrote on Instagram Monday night after the board’s vote. “Our voices are powerful enough to demand immediate action, and that is EXACTLY what took place tonight.”

At a community protest before the meeting, she had called the ban “a dagger in my heart.”

So, what happened?

At issue here was a resource list, curated by a diversity group in the fall of 2020, to help guide teachers through the complex aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The idea for the list came about after the diversity group had attempted to tweak the social studies curriculum in a way that would reflect the growing national conversation around race; but the school board tabled discussion of the issue that November, saying it would be taken up againreturned to at a later date, because of concerns that those advocating for anti-racism education were “pushing an agenda.”

“The references that were made in this committee about teaching tolerance talked about white privilege and white saviorism,” board member Vickie Guth said at the time, according to local reports. “So, you can’t win. If you’re normal, you’re a white privilege. If you’re trying to change things, you’re doing it out of the savior mentality.”

Another board member, Veronica Gemma, added, “Do we even have a problem? And if we don’t, then why are we bringing this into the classroom to teach these benchmarks based on what happened in July?” Later, she added, “Reverse racism is still racism.”

Many parents and community members were angered by the remarks. In response to the tabling of the issue, and in an attempt to provide a list of resources to educators and students interested in learning about anti-racism, the diversity committee curated a long list of resources. It included books such as This Book Is Anti-Racist and So You Want to Talk About Race, films including the James Baldwin-based I Am Not Your Negro, a CNN/Sesame Street town hall about racism, a slew of articles and online guides, and sub-links to reading materials such as I Am Enough, Skin Like Mine and We Want to Do More Than Survive.

But when the list was presented for review to the all-white school board for the district — which serves 5,739 students from K through 12 and has a 32 percent minority enrollment, mostly Black and Hispanic — members said they had heard concerns from many parents about some of the books on the list, and so tabled that agenda item, as well, while putting a “freeze” on all the resources until they could be vetted. In response, according to a source who spoke to Yahoo Life on condition of anonymity, some educators immediately started removing books from shelves.

The issue was moved to the back burner, while focus remained on the pandemic. Then, cementing the ban before the start of the current school year, an August email with the resource list (viewed by Yahoo Life) was sent to teachers by the principal, with the subject line, “Banned Resources,” and instructions to “review and double check to make sure that none of these resources are being used.”

The email alarmed teachers, parents and students again, as they prepared to head back to classrooms in September.

“You have teachers removing these books from the classroom bookshelves, and that’s a problem," Patricia Jackson, an English teacher and PARU co-faculty adviser, told Yahoo Life about the effects of the so-called freeze. “They’re afraid, because, what if a kid grabs it and shows mom and dad?”

Protests begin, pressure mounts

Enter the Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU), a school club, formed last year as a safe space to discuss issues of racial and social injustice, with its faculty advisers Jackson and Hodge. The students involved, fired up about the ongoing ban of resources, began holding daily morning protests when the 2021-2022 school year started. With parents and other concerned community members, they also began showing up at school board meetings to express their concerns publicly.

At a Sept. 13 school board meeting, many spoke out against the ban, including Gupta, who called it a “slap in the face.” Some parents said they were “shocked and saddened” and called the ban an “atrocity,” and both past and present students who said they had found Central York a difficult place to be Indian, Latinx, Black or members of other minorities, said that the resource list was just the beginning of a needed education overhaul.

One parent did speak out in support of the board, saying, “Books were not banned, an agenda was. School is not the place for politics or identity to be shaped and created. Please leave that job to the families, within their homes and churches.”

At that meeting, the board declined to reverse the ban, with Gemma, who is vice president, calling the ongoing controversy a “huge misunderstanding.” She added, “I hope everyone can settle down and be patient, because we will be addressing this … and will make sure all history, the good, bad and ugly, gets taught to the student body. But we will not teach a curriculum that creates division and hate, and we will address this.”

Those objecting to the board’s inaction noted that members had had the list for nearly a year, and did not let up, holding more protests in the days after the meeting.

Kelley Gibson, a mother of two and organizer of protests against the ban, told Yahoo Life that the situation made her worried for her community, noting that, “as the second most-diverse district in this area,” the pushback against the resource list has been “disheartening.” She added, “There are so many people here really trying to create change. … We don’t want York to be known as a place where you don’t want to raise your kids.”

Many other concerned parents, students and alumni spoke out against the “freeze” at the meeting on Sept. 21, saying the board was pushing “its own agenda,” that they were “disgusted” by the board's inaction on the matter, that the board had a “history of resistance to promoting diversity” and that recent national news coverage — as well as a tweet by Bernice King about the district’s “dangerous” ban of her father's biography — had made Central York a “laughingstock.”

“This quote, unquote ‘freeze’ hits close to home,” said a 17-year-old senior, Christina Ellis, speaking as a public commenter. An active member of PARU, she spoke with Yahoo Life before the vote, saying: “I’m not here to cause chaos. I’m here because this is wrong. … I was hurt by what happened. They banned resources by people who look like me, as a Black student.”

Was it really a ban?

Throughout the controversy, though, the board insisted this was more of an attempt to stop “indoctrination” than it was a book ban. Some critics said they were objecting to certain resources that they considered to be examples of critical race theory.

“We have never been a board who bans books,” Gemma said at Monday’s meeting. (She did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, nor did various school administrators.)

Instead, board members maintained that they had to vet the list because of concern over just a few resources that sparked concern, including A Is for Activist, a board book about activists, from queer-rights leaders to the Zapatistas, and the picture book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. At last week's meeting, the board president, Jane Johnson (who also did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment), called the suppressed itemization “not a banned book list” but “a list of resources” that was to be reviewed.

Anti-ban student protesters gather at Central York High School at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.
Anti-ban student protesters gather at Central York High School at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. (Photo courtesy of PARU)

The board stuck to its guns in an official statement about reversing the ban, released Tuesday:

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.

At the American Library Association, which advocates against censorship and tracks instances of books being challenged or banned, highlighting the issue during Banned Books Week (Sept. 26-Oct. 2), the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, told Yahoo Life, just hours before the reversal, that it’s fair to refer to Central York’s “freeze” as a ban.

“Clearly, there is suppression of a wide range of educationally suitable and developmentally appropriate materials on a wealth of topics dealing with diversity, which is unfortunate and tragic,” said Caldwell-Stone.

When it comes to semantics, she added, “To be fair, we do have a very specific definition of ‘challenged’ and ‘banned’: A challenge occurs when there is a request to remove access to a book, play, film or any resource.

“A ban,” she explained, “is when action has been taken to close off access permanently to that material. So, you could argue against that, because the materials are 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.”

Pushback over anti-racist materials has been a worrisome trend, Caldwell-Stone added, and “reflects what we observed last year when we reviewed data for the most-challenged books of 2020 list, which is a wealth of books dealing with anti-racism, particularly of the experience of Black Americans, being suppressed, under this idea that it subtracts from the experience of the majority.” In August, the ALA released an official statement denouncing the censorship trend.

She added that the ALA stands behind last week’s statement from the York County Library System, offering to make the suppressed resources available to all — and to order anything not already on the shelves.

Caldwell-Stone encouraged the Central York students and community to keep going ahead of the ban reversal, noting, “It’s incumbent on all of us that we not only have freedom to read, but to speak — and when we do, we often defeat the effort to suppress.”

Which is exactly what the many who did speak up have achieved.

“I believe today is a step to healing this district, and an opportunity to grow even stronger as a community,” school board member Kyle King said at Monday's vote.

The students pledged to not become complacent, saying they had plans to use the more than $2,000 in donations from alumni supporters for a student activity account, to provide additional copies of the controversial books as well as T-shirts with a quotation from the civil rights hero and senator John Lewis.

“We are always going to keep educating and advocating,” PARU member Olivia Pituch, 17, told Yahoo Life over the weekend. “Even if the ban is reversed.”