School District Maintains Ban of Antiracist Books Despite Student Protests

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

Last week, we covered the student protests happening in Central York school district after a long list of antiracist books and resources, originally intended as a teaching resource, was banned. Students rallied against the censorship, holding up signs reading, “Equality belongs in education,” “Diversity is a strength, not a weakness,” and “My voice matters.” The high school student group, Panther Anti-Racist Union, protested every morning from Tuesday until the board met on Monday, September 14th.

Prior to the meeting, protests continued, organized by a mother with 2 children in the district, Kelley Gibson. Around 100 people attended, and the protest included the president of York NAACP and the commissioner for the City of York Human Relations Commission as speakers.

The school board justified their decision in a September 10th statement from Jane Johnson, president of the board, who claimed that the list was banned because of the content, brought up by concerned parents, and not because the authors were Black and Latinx. Furthermore, the statement reads, “[t]he board believes that the fundamental purpose of school is that of core academics, objective education without indoctrination from any political or social agenda,” and that it will review the list in hopes of “bringing balance to our classrooms.”

Of course, there’s no such thing as a neutral education. Deciding not to teach about racism — including the racism that is the foundation of U.S. history — is a political agenda. It’s one that furthers the status quo, that erases students of color’s experiences, and upholds whiteness. If teaching kids about racism and how to be antiracist is a social agenda, then so is teaching sharing to kindergarteners or teaching kindness to 3rd graders. What’s more, this list bans books that simply include children of color, such as the picture book All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold. What does it say about a school when the sentiment “all are welcome” is banned?

District spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig explained the origins of this list: “It was a separate list of resources created by our diversity education committee. The committee members were sharing resources with one another that could be helpful in educating themselves and in supporting our diverse student population at different times,” especially after the Black Lives Matter protests.

During Monday’s meeting, Board Vice President Veronica Gemma explained why she lead the charge in banning the materials. The list was offered as a resource, but was tabled when she and other members and parents brought up concerns. When she attempted to have the list discussed, the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent said that it was the place of a curriculum committee, which they did not yet have — though the board now promises that a new curriculum committee will review the list.

Reports of the meeting suggest a board in disarray. Protests about a mask mandate took over an August meeting and a new Superintendent was appointed during the September 14th meeting. Board President Jane Johnson said that the list hadn’t “taken the front seat” because of these pressures. Between disagreements about how to handle COVID-19 precautions and a turnover in leadership, this subject seems to be challenging the board.

Gemma claimed, “Everybody on the board except for a couple of people now voted this list down 9-0 because we could not vet it, and if we had questionable books on it we had to vote it down altogether. And because we were not going to have a curriculum committee back then, we had no other choice. This community needs to understand that we embrace diversity. We appreciate how diverse this district is. We want to vet this list and we will vet this list.” She claims that this is to prevent resources that teach hate of any race: “We will not teach a curriculum that teaches division and hate.”

Another board member, Mike Wagner, disagreed with the idea that the board had no other choice and had to vet the list: “the reason we got this list to where it is is because there were members on the board who did not trust the teachers to do their jobs, and second we did not trust the administration to do their jobs when it came to this list.” Messages inquiring about whether all teaching materials have to be approved by the board were left unanswered.

Gibson calls this an “overreach of power” by the school board: “This is not Central York School District. This is not the educators my kids work with every day. This is not the caring faculty that they get to go with. This is a decision by a board who has lost touch.”

In another piece of evidence for the board struggling, Wagner related that other curricula has been shelved, including a math program, because the board did not have the time or resources to handle them.

In more confusion, some of the books listed as banned are still in middle school libraries in the district. “From what I was told, they did not have to physically remove them, but the ban is still there,” said Delma Rivera, diversity educator for York Central Middle School. “So it still is confusing. The books are banned but they’re still there.”

Other parents expressed their frustration at the idea that these resources were banned due to “parent concerns,” but that their protests have not been heard. Amy Milsten, a parent of 2 who is running for the school board, said, “What about all of us? What about all these parents here tonight? We also have a voice, so let it be heard.”

Edha Gupta, the student who organized the week of protests, expressed anger and disappointment at the board’s actions. “What about the students’ feelings? Why were we excluded in this process and then ignored in the aftermath?” She added, “It is evident to me that diversity and the voices of color in this district do not matter. I don’t feel welcome here — not anymore.”

Retired teacher Lillian Geltz agreed: “Banning the list of resources that has been published sends a powerful, hurtful and divisive message to our students of color as well as all students.”

PARU Vice President Christina Ellis said, “There is no reason that I am Rosa Parks or a pro-diversity coloring book should be on the chopping block,” and expressed confusion for why so much time was being devoted to blocking these resources when the district could be spending that on slumping test scores.

Of course, not all comments defended the resources. Homeschool mother Anna Siewert said, “Please stay in your lane and focus on the education and the intellectual growth of students instead of trying to shape and mold students’ identities based on critical race theory or any other type of indoctrination.”

The Board president claimed, “We know the curriculum committee is up and ready to get started” and that they will “continue the conversation after hearing tonight’s comments.” A recording of the entire meeting’s audio (all 2 hours of it) is available. Commentary on the list banning (as well as some comments about masks) starts at the 30 minute mark.

While we’ve seen a surge of these kinds of bans, censorship, and challenges recently, especially protesting “Critical Race Theory” — though that term has become divorced from its original meaning — the good news is that even Republican talking points recognize that this is the minority. Chris Wilson, a pollster addressing Republicans on the most effective talking points around the topic of education, advised that “The specter of CRT motivates no one but GOP primary voters. For anyone else it’s a turnoff.” What’s more, targeting teachers and teacher unions causes support for a candidate to drop. “Do not say this,” advises the PowerPoint slide.

Unfortunately, while these sentiments are broadly unpopular, this still can have huge effects locally. Central York students still have to deal not only with the evidence that their community doesn’t value antiracism or diverse voices, but also with having an education stripped of valuable resources. Even outside of this list, teachers may be wary of bringing up anything that could result in similar backlash, leading to a less accurate or useful education.

So what exactly are these resources that are getting banned?

You can read the whole list here, but because it includes links to more lists, it quickly branches off, covering much more than what it on those pages. Many of these links include their own list of links. Is everything there banned, too? What about the entire Teaching Tolerance (now Learning for Justice) website being banned — does that include every book ever mentioned there? Also, many of these are articles or books for teachers to inform their thoughts but not teach directly — are they not “allowed” to do that, even if the book is not in the classroom? It quickly gets messy.

Here are just some of the books no longer allowed to be taught in Central York school district. Particularly egregious is the banning of this Equity Book Resource List, which is full of amazing picture books by authors of color, including ones very commonly taught in school.

Adult Books, Including Teaching References

How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Read the World: Rethinking Literacy for Empathy and Action in a Digital Age by Kristin Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Young Adult and Middle Grade

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Picture Books

Lovely by Jess Hong

All are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold

Fry Bread: A Native American Story by Kevin Noble Maillard

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

I am Enough by Grace Beyers

Malala: My Story of Standing Up for Girls’ Rights by Malala Yousafzai

I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer

Our Favorite African Adrinkra Symbols: A Coloring Book by Abena Walker

If you would like to voice your concern about these books and other resources (including Sesame Street episodes and a documentary about James Baldwin) being banned in Central York school district, you can contact the school board — the emails of each are listed. Board President Jane Johnson and Vice President Veronica Gemma have been the most vocal in supporting the ban.

If you are local to Central York, the next meeting takes place September 20th on Zoom.