Search

Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

This serves as a warning to parents in school districts across the country with far-right/Moms for Liberty-aligned partisans on their boards about what they’re capable of.

Pennridge School District engaged in a massive two-year cover-up of a secret book-banning campaign initiated by two sitting Republican school board directors hellbent on unilaterally purging books without any due process, community input, oversight, or accountability. 

According to a sworn Attestation from new Superintendent Angelo Berrios, Ricki Chaikin and Jordan Blomgren ordered school staff to remove books from the library that they had unilaterally deemed were inappropriate. More so, during legal battles over a Right-to-Know request, Pennridge’s law firm, Eckert Seamans, fought to circumvent the state’s Open Records laws and conceal book removals from the public. The scheme involved illegally-doctored public records, the concealment of book removals under fake student accounts, and the eventual disposal of targeted books under the false pretense of librarian “weeding.”

That this is a book banning cover-up is not my opinion, it’s a fact. 

The local Court of Common Pleas actually ruled that Pennridge School District “acted in bad faith” in response to my Right-To-Know request. Judge Jordan Yeager concluded that the district “effectuated a cover-up of faculty, administrators, and other non-students’ removal of books from Pennridge High School’s library shelves.” 

How This Started

It began in 2022 when the Pennridge School board made the unfounded and ridiculous claim that “pornography” was rampant in our school libraries. Unbeknownst to the public, the district had enlisted the services of the PA Family Council, a right-wing Christian lobbying firm, to rewrite our district’s library policy. Even before the revamped Policy 109 passed, books targeted by Moms for Liberty started to mysteriously disappear from our high school library shelves. 

At that time, several parents emailed the district to request a list of titles that had been pulled. Then Superintendent Dr. David Bolton declined to disclose that information. He insisted that all library curation decisions were being made by librarians.

image - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

Frustrated by the lack of answers, I submitted a Right-To-Know request seeking a report that listed the books checked out of the high school library by non-students.  To my surprise, the report furnished by the district was discernibly inaccurate. It did not contain any of the targeted titles that had recently gone missing.

I hired an open records attorney, Joy Ramsingh, to negotiate with the district’s law firm, Eckert Seamans. I was simply requesting the production of a good faith public record. My goal was to learn which books were being censored.  

I wanted to give the community a fair opportunity to read, defend, and debate the merit of literature before it was permanently removed from the library. My lawyer sought to reach a quick and amicable resolution, but the negotiations were unsuccessful. We appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.

Law and Order

After a year of litigation, my attorney was able to prove that the RTK report furnished by the district was illegally manipulated. Faced with overwhelming evidence, the district eventually conceded that an employee had deleted records from the report. It was a clear attempt to hide the removal of books from public scrutiny.

From the district’s ‘Answer to Petitioner’s Emergency Petition to Supplement the Record With New Evidence.’

image 18 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

Instead of accepting accountability, Pennridge’s law firm attempted to cast the blame on a librarian. Their arguments submitted to the court focused on absolving the school board and administration of any responsibility. The judge did not find that argument to be credible.  

Judge Yeager wrote:

The District engages in an unseemly effort to evade responsibility for actions undertaken on its behalf. [….] While attempting to cast blame on a single District employee, the District offers no verification to support its claim and ignores the possibility that others were involved either directly or indirectly. The District’s thinly veiled suggestion to the contrary notwithstanding, the Court has no basis to conclude that any specific individual has done anything beyond what District officials wanted them to do.

We will learn that the judge’s instincts were 100% correct.

The court ruled that Pennridge acted in bad faith, granted attorney fees, and ordered the district to compile an accurate report of book removals. The judge wrote in his ruling that “The district altered the records that were the subject of the request, thwarted public access to public information, and effectuated a cover-up of faculty, administrators, and other non-students’ removal of books from Pennridge High School’s library shelves.”

The Court-Ordered Reports

During the court proceedings, it was discovered that a fake student account was used to conceal book removals. Because of that fact, the judge mandated that the new court-ordered report include books checked out by non-students under bogus student accounts. Ironically, in the district’s best effort to obstruct the truth from the public, they inadvertently documented which books had been secretly pulled. Below is an example, showing the removal of all copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower on March 23, 2023.

image 20 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

The reports exposed that there were multiple secret books purges that occurred during the 2022-2023 school year. The titles all had one thing in common, they were all frequent targets of the “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty. It included classic novels by esteemed authors such as; John Irving, Jesse Andrews, and John Green. Even Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Toni Morrison, did not survive the chopping block.

The Cover-up

Perhaps one of the more interesting purges happened just days before the PA Family Council’s revision of Policy 109 passed. On September 21, 2022, a batch of books were pulled from the Pennridge High School library by a faculty account. Every single copy of each title was removed.

image 23 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

A month later, the same books were checked back in only to be immediately checked back out again under a fake student account. These account switches occurred on the same exact date that the district produced the falsified Right-To-Know report. From that date forward, the report confirms that the district continued to pull targeted books out of the high school library under that phony student account.

image 22 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

While these account switches served as conclusive evidence of bad faith, attorneys for Pennridge attempted to leverage this deceptive practice as an excuse to not furnish a good faith report.

From the district’s ‘Respondent’s Brief in Opposition’:

Critically, the District’s Follett Destiny report builder system does not have the ability to generate a report that will yield only a list of book titles checked out by non-students (as individuals). See Certified Record, Exs. 8 & 13, District’s November 30, 2022 Submission and January 13, 2023 Supplemental Submission (Bolton Supplemental Affidavit, at ¶¶ 2-4). 

Rather, the reports the District is capable of generating show the activity of student and non-student accounts, i.e., the patron status assigned to the account. Id. As repeatedly explained by the District, non-students utilize student account designations/patron statuses to check- in/check-out books for various reasons in the District’s system. 

Thankfully, the judge repudiated this ridiculous argument and wrote:

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. The District is the creator of its own Destiny.

Discovering Who Ordered the Book Removals

The lingering question remained; what happened? Who was giving the directive to ban books?  Why were so many legal resources wasted to prevent the truth from surfacing? 

In early 2024 I submitted another Right-To-Know hoping to find those answers.  My request was very specific. I asked for any emails whereby a school board director instructed the superintendent to remove books from a district library. I narrowly set the time frame to only include the 3 days preceding the first major book purge.

Imagine my astonishment when I got the below response from the district.

image 19 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

Not only did such emails exist, but Pennridge’s law firm was asserting that the records could be withheld from public disclosure, citing the Noncriminal Investigation exception of the Right-To-Know Law.  

It was the same pathetic loophole that the district’s lawyers had been abusing for the past two years to deny the release of any records that might shed light on this topic. Eckert Seamans was making a mockery of transparency laws. They were misappropriating this exception to enable censorship without public oversight. But denying this particular RTK request was a bridge too far.  

I rehired my attorney.

Fortunately this time we were able to reach a settlement agreement. I would withdraw my Right-To-Know appeal. In lieu of releasing the emails, the district agreed, instead, to provide a sworn Attestation from the new superintendent. He would review the requested emails and provide the following information; 1) The name(s) of the board directors who ordered/requested/directed school staff to remove books from the library and 2) The title(s) of the books which were ordered to be removed.

Here is the response:

image 21 - Bucks County Beacon - Uncovering the Cover-up: How Republican Pennridge School Board Directors Secretly Banned Books

What This Means

It was Republicans Jordan Blomgren and Ricki Chaikin who ordered the books to be removed. Within a couple days, then Superintendent Bolton complied. These unilateral actions occurred completely outside of district policy and PA school code. There was no ‘Request for Reconsideration of Resource Material’ form submitted to properly challenge these books and no ‘Book Reconsideration Committee’ was convened to provide any level of, constitutionally mandated, due process. The Superintendent later stonewalled the public when legitimate concerns were raised about the missing titles.  

READ: Keeping Kids in School PAC-Endorsed QAnon Follower & Bigot Ricki Chaikin Is Unfit for Pennridge School Board

A month later, an illegally doctored record was furnished by the District in response to a RTK request, with these same book titles scrubbed from the report. The checkouts were subsequently hidden under a fake student account and targeted books continued to be removed under that “student” account.

At the end of the school year, parents flooded the board meetings upset about what they had noticed in the “obsolete items” section of the meeting agenda. The titles being “weeded” from the high school library mirrored the list of books that were being banned across the nation. The community’s concerns were met with gaslighting and fictitious justifications for removal.

Titles that board directors themselves had ordered removed from the library had ‘infrequent use’ listed as the reason for removal. The board voted 7-2, with only Ron Wurz and Joan Cullen dissenting to approve the weeding logs, seemingly knowing that they were a lie.

Later in court, the attorney representing Pennridge told the judge that she had done her own investigation and, with spurious evidence provided to support the claim, concluded that a librarian was at fault. Not once did the lawyer divulge a critically relevant fact to the court, the school board directors ordered the superintendent to remove the books at issue in the falsified document. It was an important tidbit of information that I’m sure the judge would have appreciated being shared with him, especially considering it was the superintendent’s sworn attestations that served as the district’s primary evidence in the lawsuit.

Tragically the scapegoated librarian has since left the district, along with all the books that were ordered removed by Ricki Chaikin and Jordan Blomgren. The one exception is The Art of Racing in the Rain which somehow survived. It is still unclear who was involved in the other purges that continued throughout the school year. One thing is clear, it stinks. I believe a real ‘Internal Investigation’ is warranted. Instead of Eckert Seamans being the party that conducts the investigation, perhaps they should be the primary subject.

Rather than following established procedures for vetting and removing library materials, school board directors abrogated that power to themselves, unilaterally ordering books banned without any review process or community input. The district then engaged in an elaborate cover-up.  Taxpayer-funded attorneys were enlisted as weapons to fight against transparency concerning actions of fundamental importance to parents and voters.  Removing books opaquely and secretly is antithetical to the core values of education and intellectual freedom.

This clear breach of public trust undermines the educational mission of Pennridge. Those involved must be held accountable for their actions. Finally, steps must be taken to uphold policies that protect academic freedom and transparency in our district.

READ MORE OF OUR PENNRIDGE SCHOOL DISTRICT COVERAGE:

How the Pennridge Community Came Together to Reject Moms for Liberty, Vermilion Education, and Political Extremism

Why I’m Taking Pennridge School District To Court

Bucks County Changemakers Interview with Darren Laustsen

In Pennridge School District Where They Banned Banned Books Week, I Read as a Form of Protest

Pennridge School District Must Acknowledge Creationism Is Not Science

Pennridge Diversity Meeting Meltdown Demonstrates Why DEI Is Desperately Needed

Bucks County Judge Rebukes Pennridge School District for Acting In Bad Faith, Orders It to Produce Library Records And Pay Legal Fees

Pennridge Constituents Voice Outrage Over Newly Elected School Board Majority’s Failed Promise To Replace Solicitor

Outgoing Republican Pennridge School Board Scheduled To (Finally) Terminate Vermilion Education Contract

Civil Rights Complaint Filed Against Pennridge School District

Understanding OCR Complaints, like in Pennridge School District, and Their Role to Ensure Equal Access to High-Quality Public Education

Moms for Liberty and the Dominionist Assault on America’s ‘Education Mountain’

The Frustration of a Pennridge School District Parent

Vermilion Education Gives Pennridge School District Curriculum a Right-Wing Makeover

Pennridge GOP School Board Candidates’ Masks Come Off In PA Family Council’s Voter Guide

Pennridge School Board Efforts to Overhaul District Curriculum Doesn’t End With Vermilion Education and Hillsdale 1776

Pennridge School Board’s Continued Attacks on LGBTQ Community Show a Lack Empathy, Decency, and Logic

OPINION: Never a Good Time for Vermilion Education and Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum in Pennridge, or Any Bucks County School District

Pennridge GOP School Board Candidate Josh Hogan Verbally Attacks Curriculum Supervisor at Meeting

Pennridge Parents, Teachers Criticize Vermilion Education’s Push to Require Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum for the District

What Did Pennridge School District Receive From Vermilion Education in May and June For $12.5K? Very Few In The District Know

Leaked Audio of Vermilion Education Head Jordan Adams’s Presentation to Moms for Liberty

Red, Wine & Blue Labels Pennridge School District More Extreme Than Florida

Race Matters Spotlight: Bursting the ‘Pennridge Bubble’

Pennridge Community Speaks Out Against the School Board’s Inept and Extremist Policies

Pennridge Pulls Ahead in Bucks County Right-wing School Boards’ Race to the Bottom with Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum

Pennridge School District’s Proposed Policy on Student Expression Is ‘Extreme’ and ‘Unconstitutional’

Pennsylvania Conservative Group Recruiting Informants to Report on Public Schools

Support progressive, independent media.

Picture of Darren Laustsen

Darren Laustsen

Darren Laustsen has lived in Bucks County for over 35 years. He recently became involved in local politics after witnessing extremism creep into his daughters’ school district. Darren is a fervent believer in public education and the first amendment rights of students.

Top 5

Follow Us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

* indicates required