Local parent Darren Laustsen won his legal battle against Pennridge School District Friday when Bucks County Judge Jordan B. Yeager ruled in his favor and sharply criticized the district for its ongoing attempts to conceal records relating to library books.
The Court found Pennridge to have acted in bad faith, ordered the District to produce the documents requested by Laustsen, and to reimburse the legal fees he paid to force the District to comply with Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.
The ongoing litigation between Laustsen and the District is chronicled in a 33-page Opinion and Order, aptly laced with quotes from award winning books in the footnotes.
“When the District initially responded to the request – on October 28, 2022, the day after Laustsen’s appeal to the OOR – it represented that it was providing a list of titles checked out by non-students. We now know that this wasn’t accurate. So it goes,” wrote Yeager referencing Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Laustsen’s fight with Pennridge began shortly after a school board meeting in late September 2022 when far-right board directors rushed the approval of Policy 109, Resource Materials, with only a first reading, and completely omitted the traditional second read.
The new policy would lead to a purge of library books that certain board directors found to be less than chaste, including books claimed to contain “age-inappropriate sexualized content.”
Policy 109 also incorporates portions of the Commonwealth’s Criminal Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 3101 and 18 Pa.C.S § 6312, relating to child pornography, in an attempt to justify the removal of books with LGBTQ content and books that include sensitive topics such as incest or rape. None of the books removed from the library are or have ever been deemed “pornographic” by the American Library Association.
“The very next morning, I navigated to the Pennridge High School library’s online card catalog. I discovered the first chapter of the district’s book banning initiative,” Laustsen wrote in an article published by The Beacon. “Every single copy of certain titles were marked checked out. Unlike books being borrowed by actual students, these copies were not due back for an entire year.”
Laustsen contacted then Superintendent David Bolton, asking specifically about the book Looking For Alaska. All copies of the book had been pulled from the shelves for review, Bolton advised, but he would not provide the titles of any other books that had been removed.
Laustsen then filed a Right-to-Know request seeking “all titles checked out by those patrons that are NOT Students.” Little did he know that his inquiry would begin a legal wrangling for which he would need to retain a lawyer if he wished to see the public records he was legally entitled to have access to.
For months on end, Laustsen and his attorney Joy Ramsingh sought to cut through district solicitor Eckert Seamans’s smoke screens and word salads, in their repeated attempts to obtain the requested records.
“The District cannot create a maze, hide information at the end of a maze, and then claim that it cannot access the information because it can’t find its way through the maze,” wrote Judge Yeager in his rebuke of the district’s intentional attempt to conceal information.
This decision is precedent-setting and puts other school districts, like Central Bucks, on notice that not following RTK laws will not be tolerated. “To my knowledge, this is one of the first opinions in Pennsylvania addressing what happens when an agency deliberately manipulates, or falsifies, public records,” said Ramsingh. “Other ‘bad faith’ opinions have simply been about the agency’s negligence in responding. The actions of Pennridge School District go far past negligence. This was intentional.”
Ramsingh went on to say that the case represents a sad day for the school district and for transparency in public schools. Her hope is that other agencies will learn from Pennridge’s mistake.
“Public schools enjoy a unique partnership with parents and other community members. We trust them with our most valuable asset – our children,” she said. “And when that trust is breached, the law will uphold the public’s right to know what the school is doing, even if they’d rather keep that information secret.”
Although Laustsen knows he will finally receive the records he originally requested, he continues to have strong feelings about the district’s conduct.
“It is abundantly clear that Pennridge used deception, obstruction, gaslighting, and legal roadblocks to combat transparency,” said Laustsen. “Taxpayer-funded attorneys were enlisted as political weapons to fight the public’s right to know.”
He said his original intention was to give parents an opportunity to read the books at risk of being banned, and to allow for public input prior to any book being removed.
“Defending the First Amendment rights of your own kids should be a fundamental parental right,” said Laustsen. “A transparent process would have been in line with a school board that operates under democratic principles. I hope they are embarrassed by this opinion, as they should be.”
Policy 109 details a requirement for two professional reviews prior to a book being removed from the library, as well as when and why books may be “weeded.” According to the policy, reasons for weeding include obsolescence, physical condition, the number of available copies, coverage of the content by other materials, the value to the total collection and changes in curricular emphasis.
Instead of conducting any professional reviews of books with questionable content, the district simply weeded them.
Lists of books began to appear on monthly school board agendas shortly after Policy 109 was adopted. In many instances, no reason was provided as to why all copies of a specific book were being weeded. However, it was quickly apparent that many of the titles were frequently found on banned book lists created and circulated by the extremist group Moms For Liberty.
The May school board meeting agenda included fiction and non-fiction books to be weeded. In many instances, no reason was provided as to why the books were being removed.
Milk and Honey, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret are just a few of the titles the board voted to purge.
Local Pennridge parent Jane Cramer learned that weeded books are sold as surplus goods and purchased the lot for $8.48. Cramer, along with two other parents, Laura Foster and Heather Young, helped retrieve and open the cartons.
Mixed among books that were damaged and outdated were titles found on banned book lists.
“We opened the boxes and all 12 copies of Perks Of Being A Wallflower were there,” Cramer said. “None of the copies were damaged, and it’s a popular book, so why were they removed?”
“The lengths that school board will go to,” said Foster, who is a local resident, parent and co-founder of the group RIDGE. “This is not about our children. This is about this wild political agenda that they are trying to impose in our school and it needs to end. This is the first step in an ending … it isn’t going to be the last.”
In his Opinion, Judge Yeager wrote that the primary purpose of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law is to ensure the important goal of government transparency and cited the famous fictional attorney Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.
“Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.”