Shelving Facts and Fiction About Central Bucks School District’s Disputed Library Policy

Why is it too much to ask for a book policy that holds steadfast to the notion that “the freedom to read and learn is an additive, not subtractive, process,” and is curated by the deep expertise of the librarians and teachers within our own district?
Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash.

Central Bucks School District is set to pass controversial library policy 109.2, despite the overwhelming concerns voiced by Central Bucks parents, students, teachers, librarians, the NAACP, PFLAG, the Pennsylvania School Library Association, the Education Law Center, the ACLU of PA, and the 59 organizations in the National Coalition Against Censorship, not to mention the over 3,000 signatories of a local petition opposing it.  

The policy is described by many as a book ban. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, notes that this policy is “not intended to develop a robust collection that serves a wide variety of reader’ needs,” but instead restricts books “based on a very vague description of [implied] sexual content.” If passed, CBSD will be home to likely the most restrictive library policy in the state.  

A policy that has evoked these strong and consistent responses undoubtedly deserves the lion’s share of the discussion at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

But just for a moment, I’d like to call your attention to item 14C on this Tuesday’s agenda, nestled inconspicuously after the proposed approval of middle school volleyball.  

The CBSD Communications Proposal June 2022 would have the district hire a Philadelphia-based public relations firm (at the cost of $15,000/month) to teach the administration how to “rebuild the bank of goodwill within the CBSD community at large so that future change can be managed from a strong foundation.”  

The emphasis is placed on student voices and the strength of the faculty serving their educational needs. Listed are some words or phrases graduating seniors used to describe their favorite teachers – “love of learning,” “open-mindedness,” “genuineness,” “kindness,” “teaching critical thinking and leadership.”

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Everybody loves a good story, says this glossy PR pitch. So, let me tell you one.

It was a cold evening on Feb. 9, ,2022, when K-12 district library coordinator Melissa Burger demonstrated her professional expertise when giving a thoughtful presentation on how our school libraries establish their collections, and then made recommendations based on her years of experience (don’t take my word for it, read all of it for yourself). At the foundation of her proposal was inclusion, “unfettered by personal, political, social, or religious views,” guided by the American Association of School Librarians national standards, and rooted in professional and ethical responsibility. 

Imagine, a book selection policy that:

1. Meets the needs of a wide range of students, of varied abilities.

2. Evaluates suitability for the intended audience by using reputable, unbiased, professional journals and reviews. 

3. Assesses accurate content, based on authority of the author, organization, and publisher.

4. Reflects the pluralistic nature of a global society of varying backgrounds and cultures. 

5. Acknowledges that an individual may select or reject books for their child/ren, but must not censor or restrict that freedom for all others

6. Includes a transparent and thorough process for reconsideration (including, the quintessentially librarian request to read the entire work and provide a summary).

Imagine a book policy that holds steadfast to the notion that “the freedom to read and learn is an additive, not subtractive, process,” and is curated by the deep expertise of the librarians and teachers within our own district.  

Now here is where the story takes a dark turn because the library policy 109.2 that is set to pass tomorrow is … not that. It is one that overwhelmingly focuses on “avoiding inappropriate materials,” defined vaguely and broadly for the greatest confusion. It is one where book banning will be spun as “stop the grooming” or “removal of pornography.” It is one intent on creating a mirage of “parental choice,” when the real goal is erasure and censorship because – it is only CERTAIN choices and CERTAIN parents and CERTAIN families. But to clarify the mental gymnastics taking place through all these coded words – the idea is and always has been either the outright banning of books or removing them from the selection process entirely through the infinitely more dangerous “soft and quiet of self-censorship.” Make it hard for weary, harassed, targeted educators and librarians to pick a collection because they now must ask, in a school district of 18,000 students and families, “who is going to complain,” not “who needs this?” 

Everybody loves a good story, right? 

So let me end mine here: Superintendent and School Board majority, if you want to convince us that “the standards, inclusive values, and commitment undergirding them are permanent characteristics of CBSD and its people,” as encouraged by this public relations firm, then actually align your policies to that north star. If you want to put the “focus on the ones back on the good work of faculty and staff,” actually listen to the educators who have repeatedly raised valid concerns regarding policy 109.2. Instead of deflecting the fallout of your divisive policies as “controversies that will come and go,” reflect on the deeper issues affecting this varied community of almost 18,000 students.

Because the reasons why families like mine move into the District and the reasons why teachers choose to work in Central Bucks – those standards and inclusive values and achievements you so badly want to promote – we are at risk of losing all of it.

Anusha Viswanathan

Anusha Viswanathan

Anusha Viswanathan is a parent in the Central Bucks School district. Her love for books began in the fourth grade, when she was the “new kid” in a new country. She will forever be grateful to school librarians who opened the doors of possibility, then and now.

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