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Pennridge board president says proposed new library book policy to make sure student materials are age-appropriate | #predators | #childpredators | #kids


EAST ROCKHILL — A proposed new policy regarding library books and other resource materials in district schools isn’t about banning books, two board members said at the onset of the Aug. 1 Pennridge School Board Policy Committee meeting.

“All that we’re looking to do is make sure that the resources that our students have access to and are exposed to are age appropriate,” board President Joan Cullen said.

That’s the same as the district has always tried to do, she said.

Concerns about that proposed policy and others, including one characterized by an ACLU attorney as “Orwellian,” were raised in a recent WHYY.org news article. Other policies mentioned include ones on employee advocacy and student expression.

That article didn’t tell both sides of the story, Pennridge board member Ron Wurz said at the committee meeting.

“What we are addressing here tonight are standards for our administration to follow. This is not about banning books in the library. This is not about restricting debate in school,” he said.

The goal is to make sure that when divisive issues are discussed at school, teachers and administrators speak from a neutral perspective, he said.

“We need to ensure that the instruction to our students comes from an unbiased focus. It is up to our children and their parents to discuss these topics and inform opinions as part of their upbringing,” Wurz said.

During the school day, the focus should be on learning, not on issues that make students on both sides of the political spectrum feel uncomfortable, he said. After school, the students can advocate for whatever issues they feel are important, he said.

Fears that the proposed policies leave open the possibility of students or employees freedom of expression being restricted are an over-reaction, he said.

“I believe our current administration will be the first to stop any kind of overreach of this policy,” Wurz said. “They have done a good job of this so far. As with most issues in the U.S., we usually find compromise somewhere towards the middle.”

During public comment, resident Kyle Esposito said the board is politicizing education.

“You are the ones bringing your opinions into our classrooms,” he said. “Your decisions are hurting our district and you are hurting our kids.”

“Instead of transparently addressing real issues in Pennridge School District, like bullying, racist graffiti and language in the high school, high teacher turnover, low student teacher morale, learning gaps and an increase in behavioral issues, this board is focused on creating policies to address problems that don’t exist to score political points on their radical agenda,” resident Jane Cramer said.

The proposed advocacy policy and others are “unconstitutional and downright un-American,” she said.

“The nation is already facing a teacher shortage. Why would anyone want to work in Pennridge if these policies are approved as written?” Cramer said.

Resident Kristen Strauss said it’s important that students be allowed to speak passionately about what they believe in, but it only works when the students are ready to hear and understand the matter.

“Ultimately, it has to be age appropriate because we don’t want to put students in a situation that they’re not prepared for,” Strauss said. “At the same time, we don’t want to leave our students unprepared for the real world.”

Superintendent David Bolton said he’s confident the Pennridge library staff does a good job in choosing books.

“They are extremely thoughtful in terms of what is age appropriate, what are the flags for sexuality or language or violence or anything that’s there that might cause concern,” Bolton said.

The librarian recommendations for new books must also be approved by district administrators, including principals, he said.

In addition, the district has an existing review process if concerns are raised about a book, he said.

A draft version of an administrative procedures addendum for the proposed resource materials policy includes a “Request for Reconsideration of a Resource Material” form.

“In the event that the suitability or accuracy of specific resource materials is questioned by a member of the staff, a student, or one or more residents of the district, the originator of the request may request that the use of these resource materials be reconsidered,” the administrative procedures say.

When requests for reconsideration are received, a committee will be formed to review the material, according to the administrative procedures. That committee will, within 45 school days, submit to the superintendent or someone designated by the superintendent, “a report summarizing the determination of the merits of the objections raised, the factual basis for that determination, and a recommendation for future action. Options for future action include (but are not limited to) continued unrestricted use of the resource material(s), specific adjustments, or limitations to be made in conjunction with continued use, or discontinuation.”

During the discussion at the Aug. 1 meeting, the board consensus was to add a list of things, such as nudity and sexuality, that should be considered in determining if the books are age-appropriate. Board members said they would also like to have lists of books being purchased made public sooner. The public already has access to the card catalog containing the titles of books already in the library, Bolton said.

With as many as 1,000 books purchased at a time, the district staff cannot read all of them, administrators and the board agreed.

One of the big problems is publishers putting out materials that aren’t age appropriate, Cullen said.

“Publishers are deliberately creating content that they know full well and good isn’t appropriate for kids of a certain age,” she said.

She said she would like to see the publishing industry take more responsibility in the content creation and appropriate age classifications, such as has been done with movies and television.

“We as adults can’t even watch a commercial about tobacco because that was banned,” Cullen said, “and yet we allow students to be targeted with this kind of material that everyone knows is inappropriate.”

The proposed new Resource Materials policy would update the current policy adopted in June of 2012.

STUDENT EXPRESSION/DISSEMINATION OF MATERIALS

The proposed Student Expression/Dissemination of Materials policy, began, as most district policies do, with wording that came directly from the Pennsylvania School Board Association, Bolton said.

“Really, what the conversation comes down to is dissemination of materials about non-school activities,” he said. “This has nothing to do with school-related materials. This has nothing to do with personal student expression in terms of what they’re wearing, what they’re saying.”

“Realistically, you have to control what is going to be disseminated in your schools. You just can’t have everything being covered with fliers and posters,” Cullen said, “so I would like to see some language that helps define a time, place and manner.”

For instance, the materials could be posted on school bulletin boards designated for that purpose, she said.

Under the proposed policy, students would first have to submit the material for review. Restrictions include that the materials could not violate the law; be defamatory, obscene, lewd, vulgar or profane; advocate or advertise products such as tobacco, vaping products, alcohol or illegal drugs; incite violence; or advocate use of force or threaten serious harm to the school or community.

“I guess I’m really confused about all of the outrage around this policy because if all we’re saying is don’t take any of your outside stuff and post it all over our hallways, I don’t really understand the problem,” committee Chair Megan Banis-Clemens said. “That’s consistent with what we’ve always done.”

The proposed new policy would update one last revised in October of 2019.

ADVOCACY ACTIVITIES

The proposed Advocacy Activities policy replaces what was formerly known as the Political Activities policy, adopted in October of 2012.

“The Board recognizes and encourages the right of administrative, professional and support employees, as citizens, to engage in areas of advocacy including but not limited to religion, gender, identity, social, political and geo-political matters. However, district time, resources, property or equipment, paid for by taxpayers, may not be used for advocacy purposes by district employees when performing assigned duties,” the proposed policy says. “Employees shall not engage in advocacy activities during assigned work hours on property under the jurisdiction of the Board. Further, all staff will retain their personal views and remain neutral on advocacy-related matters during assigned work hours.”

Discussion and study of advocacy-related matters when applicable to curriculum and appropriate to classroom studies is exempt from the policy, the proposed policy says.

“In our curriculum, all topics will be presented in a balanced and factual manner,” it says.

“I think the point of it is that we don’t want non-educational things being discussed,” board member Ricki Chaikin said. “We want our teachers focusing on education.”

The policy should be better defined, though, she said.

Board member Jordan Blomgren, who is a teacher in another district, said teachers have a huge impact on students.

“It’s our responsibility as teachers to stick with our curriculum and not be bringing in our personal views on certain things,” she said.

In response to questions having been raised about whether the policy would mean people in same sex relationships could not display family photos or wear wedding rings, Cullen said reasonable people know where the line is.

“To say a person wouldn’t be able to have a picture of their family or wear a wedding ring I think is just really off-base,” she said. “What you’re looking to do is have a neutral classroom and that’s what every student deserves.”

Blomgren and Cullen also addressed advocacy symbols in the schools.

“I actually take it as an insult to think that I have to have a rainbow sticker on my room to show that I’m a safe person to talk to. I have a rapport with all my students and you develop that. I don’t need to virtue signal that,” Blomgren said.

“If you’re looking to put up labels of who you love, who you accept, who you’re going to treat well, then that tells me that you’re leaving someone out and that tells a child that you’re leaving someone out if you have to make a list and you have to have a symbol, because a child’s going to be looking for their symbol, the symbol that applies to them,” Cullen said. “When you have no symbol and you have neutrality, that is the ultimate safe place for students.”

Cullen said she’s heard from teachers in other school districts that they feel pressured to display certain symbols or they will be labelled as bigots.

The proposed policies decrease student access to knowledge, resident Leah Rash said during public comment.

“The problems you’re trying to prevent are actually the problems you’re creating with these policies,” she said. “Shame, silence, inappropriateness around gender identity and sexual orientation is a breeding ground for sexual predators.”

As with all Pennridge School Board meetings, the full more than four-hour-long Aug. 1 meeting can be viewed on the Pennridge School District YouTube channel.



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