How students fought a book ban and won, for now
By Isabella Grullón Paz and Maria Cramer
Edha Gupta and Christina Ellis, two high school seniors in York County, Pennsylvania, were furious when they read last month in a local paper that their teachers had been effectively banned from using hundreds of books, documentary films and articles in their classrooms.
The list, which was created in 2020 by a diversity committee in the Central York School District, was meant to serve as a resource guide for students and teachers as they grappled with the racial and social turmoil that followed the murder of George Floyd. It included a documentary film about James Baldwin and a statement on racism by the state’s association of school administrators.
It also included children’s books like “A Boy Called Bat,” about a third grader with autism; “I Am Rosa Parks”; and “Cece Loves Science,” about a curious girl who loves experiments.
But what began as an effort to raise awareness somehow ended with all of the materials on the list being banned from classrooms by the district’s school board in a little-noticed vote last November. Some parents in the district, which draws about 5,000 students from suburban townships surrounding the more diverse city of York, had objected to materials that they feared could be used to make white children feel guilty about their race or “indoctrinate” students.
The debate came to a head with the return to in-person classes at the start of the current school year. The Sept. 1 article in The York Dispatch quoted teachers who were aghast at an email from the high school’s principal listing the forbidden materials.
“In 19 years of teaching, it was the first time one Central York High School educator had ever received an email like it: a list of banned books, movies and other teaching materials,” the story began.
“I was ready to go to battle,” said Ellis, 17. “I read the first sentence, and that was enough.”
That same week, she and Gupta, 17, recruited other students to wear black T-shirts to school in protest. Over the weekend, they created signs that read “Diversity is our strength” and “Our story matters. My voice matters.” They handed the signs out to their classmates, who began protesting every day at 7:15 a.m. before school.
Soon, the students were writing letters to the editor and reading excerpts from the banned books on Instagram. The controversy dominated the headlines in The Dispatch and its rival paper, The York Daily Record, and soon drew national media attention. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., posted a message on Instagram supporting the students, and some of the authors whose books were on the list voiced support.
The committee that drew up the list in August 2020 was composed of faculty members, students, residents and board members reacting to the many protests that occurred following Floyd’s murder. When the board voted to keep the materials out of classrooms, it got little attention in York, a county with nearly 500,000 people about 100 miles west of Philadelphia.
The county has 16 different school districts covering rural and suburban areas, as well as the city of York, where a little more than half the population is Black or Hispanic and where memories of race riots 50 years ago still linger.
At the time of the vote, public attention was mostly focused on the pandemic and the presidential election, according to the students.
But Patricia Jackson, an English and creative writing teacher at the high school, said instructors “lived in fear” of being disciplined.
“I had children writing stories about queer love and trans love, and I was worried about the backlash about that,” she said.
Gupta said she was not even aware of the vote.
At the time, she and other students, who had formed the Panther Anti-Racist Union, were trying to convince the board to adopt a social studies curriculum that included an African American studies class. The group was named for the school mascot.
Other residents around the town said they were stunned when they saw the list of banned resources.
“It takes your breath away,” said Hannah Shipley, 27, a nanny in York. “People are afraid of these books?”
On Sept. 13, the school board met again to discuss the list. About 100 people protested outside. Dozens of people spoke during the public hearing, and many of them criticized the board.
Some parents agreed that the board should vet some of the books, which they believed criticized the police or focused too heavily on ideas like white privilege.
“I’m sure there might be some books that are on there that probably don’t need to be,” Matt Weyant, a parent, said at the meeting. “But at the same time, I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s white.”
Once again, the board voted to keep the materials from being used in class.
“We will not teach a curriculum that creates division and hate,” said Veronica Gemma, a school board member.
The students continued their morning protests. Shipley said she posted a video of herself on TikTok reading some of the books and tagged the authors, who began encouraging their followers on social media to buy the books and send them to York. A petition circulated.
Less than three weeks after the students began their campaign, the board met again, on Sept. 20, and temporarily lifted the freeze. The board said that its November 2020 vote was not intended to be a ban, but rather an effort to give a curriculum committee time to review the materials.
The board noted that none of the listed books had been removed from school libraries and that teachers who had already been using the materials were not affected.
Jane Johnson, president of the school board, read aloud from a statement that said that while the board recognized the importance of diversity, it was concerned about materials that “may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content.”
Johnson acknowledged that the committee review had taken too long.
“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,” she said. She and the board declined to be interviewed.
Tim Strickler, a board member, defended residents who had raised concerns but said he was voting to reverse the freeze because it was not “helpful” to keep the entire list of resources out of classrooms.
“What these parents oppose is the use of diversity training as a tool of activism or political indoctrination,” he said, “which appears to be the aim of some of the resources, a minority of the resources.”
Ben Hodge, a teacher who is a faculty adviser to the Panther Anti-Racist Union, said that kind of rhetoric undermined the autonomy of teachers to train students to think critically about what they are reading.
“Censorship is a slippery slope,” he said.