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Chester County Press

‘The banning of books is an issue that can fundamentally change a school district’

08/08/2023 03:07PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Gabbie Burton, Contributing Writer

During my senior year at Oxford Area High School, I took photographs of school staff holding copies of their favorite books that have historically faced bans.

Those photographs were later turned into western-style “Wanted” posters that the teachers hung in their classrooms to celebrate Banned Books Week. Nearly four years later, while researching this story as a contributing writer for the Chester County Press, I heard a current Oxford student reference those same posters while speaking against proposed book banning measures in the district at the April 25 school board meeting. At the time, I never thought those posters would hold any greater significance beyond a celebration of great literature, and I certainly never thought I’d be working to find out why.

First, it should be noted that the school board does not agree with the sentiment that they are “banning books.” The board is reviewing Policy 6300, which is the material selections policy for the district’s libraries. Policy 6300 was readopted at the Feb. 21, 2023 school board meeting in a unanimous vote before being listed as under review for policy revisions at the March 21 meeting.

While revisions are normal and part of routine, it is what has occurred since that has community members, students and staff concerned.

At the board’s work session meeting on April 11, a member of the public brought a list of books that they deemed inappropriate. Some of the titles on that list were available at the district’s libraries but others were not. The titles on that list will not be shared here in an effort to deter any further actions against them, but content of the books included LGBTQ+ and gender issues, trauma, violence, abuse and sexual situations.

Additional community members began to pick up on the issue and address their concerns, both for and against, on Facebook and to the school board themselves through April and May. This eventually led to a board member filing a challenge this summer against several other books including The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Lucky by Alice Sebold in an effort to reevaluate their inclusion on library shelves. To those who are not familiar with the school district’s policy, filing a challenge requires an advisory committee to be formed to review said challenge and determine if the book or books in question should be removed. The complainant can then issue an appeal to the school board if they so choose.

The committee is meant to be made up of all school librarians, a building principal, a teacher from each building, a member of the board of education, a member of the parent teacher organization and a student “when appropriate.” Forming this committee in the summer months requires faculty and teachers to commit a considerable amount of time to the issue over their well-deserved breaks and be paid out of taxpayer dollars to complete the additional work that is occurring outside of their regular work schedule.

This most recent challenge presents a massive conflict of interest. While some board members are parents of students in the district, that does not mean they should have the power to suggest sweeping decisions that restrict other students from gaining access to these books -- especially considering that they are elected to serve those students.

The members of the advisory committee who reviewed the challenge brought forth by the board member ultimately voted in favor of keeping the books.

The second main issue to focus on here is the content of the policy revisions. It is still not clear the extent to which Policy 6300 will be revised, as any edits to the policy have not been made public at the time of writing. Due to one board member’s challenge to the policy and additional suggestions made by other board members -- including statements made during the policy committee meetings -- the current fear is that any changes made to the policy will be in an effort to make challenges easier and, subsequently, lead to the removal of more and more books from library bookshelves; thus, banning books.

Most disappointing of all is how little information the Oxford school board is sharing with the community it serves. Some events referenced in this editorial seem to have occurred without the board providing any explicit public awareness and, again, over the summer which further hinders any outside checks on developments.

In research for a full report I have been working on for the Press, one board member I contacted was initially cooperative with my request for an interview, yet the scheduled meeting never occurred. Just prior to the publication of this editorial, another possible date for an interview was offered by the board member, suggesting that I follow up on the policy committee meeting on Aug. 8. Other school officials I contacted did not reply to my request, and a teacher declined my request to speak after expressing concerns some of the staff have on speaking on the issue.

Board members may believe that what they are doing is in the best interest of the students and for their protection, but it is putting undue stress on teachers and staff and is opening the door to potential changes that would limit student access to information. The board must take accountability for the challenge filed and the oversights made in the dealing of it. The board must also recognize that Policy 6300 is strong as is and does not require additional changes, and it is my recommendation as a former student in the school district that any suggested changes should be voted down.

No matter the school district, the banning of books is an issue that can fundamentally change a school district, and any proposal that aims to effect this change needs to be seriously considered as such.

I never expected events like this to unfold at Oxford because I always had complete faith in the faculty I interacted with. Those faculty members are why I am even capable of writing this piece today, and I am forever grateful to them for all their work. I recognize now, however, that they have just as much power in this situation as all of you in the community who are reading this editorial. I trust the district’s faculty in choosing reading materials for their students and the board should too.

While some books may be graphic and talk about things you’d rather not have your child see, that does not mean that they have no greater value or meaning. These books can make a student feel less alone, offer them comfort, support, or even provide an escape. These books are selected by professionals who are educated and trained especially for this and the books are there for a reason. Remember that just because a book is in the library does not mean that it has to be read.

In the research for this piece I was told a quote: “Not every book in the library is for everyone, but is for someone.” We should all want that someone to have that book.

A native of Oxford, Contributing Writer Gabbie Burton is a 2020 graduate of Oxford Area High School and is a rising senior at the University of Colorado-Boulder.