If democracy dies in darkness, apathy and silence are the twin assassins that provide the kill shot when no one is looking.
This is why it was not only so critical, but inspiring, that a group of Council Rock North High School students showed up at Thursday night’s school board meeting to shine a light on potential censorship within the district’s libraries and speak out in passionate and eloquent defense of free speech and intellectual freedom.
The fact that this occurred in the middle of National Library Week, after the American Library Association released a report Monday revealing there were more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals in 2021, the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA started tracking this 20 years ago, underscores how timely and crucial these students’ courage is. And, let’s just keep in mind, these are just the cases that have been reported to the ALA.
The students’ concerns arose after a March 14 district policy meeting that addressed Policy 109 and desired changes to administrative procedures and regulations regarding how books and library materials are reviewed, chosen, and challenged, while ensuring greater public transparency and uniformity across the district.
This isn’t really controversial.
But some comments from school board members are.
Right now parents can exempt their children from reading certain books and materials. But, one school board member wants to turn that on its head and create a system where parents instead create lists of books that their children are allowed to read. There were also concerns about books with “homosexual or sexual situations” and “oral sex.” Another suggestion was that books be rated like movies, Rated R or Rated X. One parent even suggested to the district that books be kept behind locked doors.
So, while school board members were very careful to state that they don’t want to “ban” anything, branding, locking up, and restricting books amounts to a de facto book ban. And as we have seen up and down Bucks County, the books targeted will involve topics and authors of underrepresented communities.
While some of these conservative school board members can’t, or refuse, to recognize this, local students did.
Ezra Briskin, a senior at Council Rock North, said, “I am worried this policy will lead to more restrictive media resource guidelines in the future and I am concerned how they could affect minority students, specifically the LGBTQ+ and Black communities.” He added that “it is well overdue to empower students to think beyond the heteronormative box in which we have been stuck.”
Ainsley Jordan is a student of color at the high school. She recalled to the board the difficulties of being a minority in a majority community and how that damaged her self-esteem. But you know what helped? A book.
“It wasn’t until I read a story about a young Black girl in the fourth grade who ran for class president …It was my first time I saw a person of color portrayed the way she was,” said Jordan. “I felt less alone. I don’t think I would love myself the way I do if I had not read that book.”
“It has some strong content and discussed hard topics, but it was relatable,” she added.
Queer and trans student Teddy Schaefer said the school district should focus its attention on how LGBTQ+ students in the district are mistreated and harassed, rather than how or whether they should be represented in literature accessible in libraries.
“Representation is so important, so critical in literature, especially for LGBTQ+ students. There is so much hatred and homophobia in our district alone that students need to know it’s ok to be who they are,” said Schaefer.
Amazing students have been leading the resistance against book banning not just at Council Rock, but across Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the country. This shouldn’t be surprising. Students have long been protagonists throughout U.S. history, and right now Bucks County students find themselves in a movement moment.
Now is the time for countywide student organizing and solidarity to occur. Students need to build infrastructure, educate themselves on their shared experiences, and find ways to join their struggles to push back against these coordinated ideological assaults in public education seen in what has been described as “The School Board Wars.”
Students like the ones at Council Rock Thursday night have written the opening lines of the history of the present. I look forward to the coming chapters.