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Pa. school district ends ban on list of books by or about people of color after student backlash

Central York High School students protesting the district's book ban. The decision was reversed this week. (YouTube/WGAL)

A Pennsylvania school district that had banned a list of anti-racism books and educational resources by or about people of color — including children’s titles about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — reversed its nearly year-long decision this week after backlash and protests from students, parents and educators in the community.

The Central York School District had implemented “a freeze” last fall on a lengthy list of books and educational resources that focused almost entirely on titles related to people of color. The school district claimed the books on race and social justice, which some in the southern Pennsylvania community hoped would help bolster the educational curriculum following George Floyd’s murder and the racial-justice protests of 2020, were frozen, not banned, after some parents raised concerns about the materials.

The school board announced Monday it had voted unanimously to reinstate access to the books, district spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig confirmed to The Washington Post.

Jane Johnson, president of the school board, said in a statement that the review of the anti-racist materials had “taken far too long.” The all-White school board had taken months to vet books and materials such as children’s titles on Parks and King, education activist Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, the Oscar-nominated PBS documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about writer James Baldwin and CNN’s “Sesame Street” town hall on racism.

Johnson previously noted that some parents in the district “believe that rather than uniting on diversity, certain resources polarize and divide on diversity and are based on disputed theories and facts.”

“What we are attempting to do is balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content,” Johnson said this week. “To that end, we recognize the intensity of opinions on all sides of these issues, and we are committed to making this long delay right.”

The decision, which came following months of criticism and national attention, was announced hours after about 200 students and parents protested the school board’s ban, holding signs with messages such as “Education is not indoctrination.”

“We have heard you,” board member Jodi Grothe said before the vote, according to the York Dispatch.

Students at Central York High School had denounced and protested the ban, saying their “thoughts are being invalidated.” Students organized demonstrations over consecutive days this month in response to the district’s inaction toward reversing the ban.

“The reversal of this ban was surprising but not surprising in a way most think,” Christina Ellis, vice president of the Panther Anti-Racist Union, a student group at the school, said in a statement to The Post. “We hope that this was a lesson for this community and leadership: that injustice cannot and will not be tolerated any longer.”

Johnson did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday.

The school district’s reversal comes at a time when educators and elected officials nationwide are engaged in heated and fraught debates over how far teachers can go in teaching about history, race and systemic racism in the classroom. Most of those battles have been focused on critical race theory, an academic framework for examining systemic racism.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

Conservative legislators in several states have proposed bans on teaching critical race theory in public schools. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has made banning critical race theory in schools one of the most significant promises of his campaign, even as school officials in the state and across the country have repeatedly denied they are teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools.

Critical race theory, which examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism, has also become a focus of heavy coverage by right-leaning news outlets.

The backlash has spilled over into the classroom in recent weeks. James Whitfield, a Texas high school principal, was suspended last month after being publicly accused of promoting critical race theory, which he has denied. He told The Post that he is the target of political activists who want to block attempts to make schools more inclusive.

“That sounds absurd,” he said, “but that is the nature of what we’re dealing with.”

Families beg for Black principal to be reinstated after critical race theory dispute: ‘Nothing short of a witch hunt’

In York, Pa., about 50 miles north of Baltimore, some parents and teachers in the county school district hoped that the “Diversity Committee Summer Meeting Resource List” would help further educate students following Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests during the summer of 2020. The list includes lauded authors of color such as Ibram X. Kendi, Jacqueline Woodson and Ijeoma Oluo.

But Johnson noted in a separate statement this month that “a significant portion of our District’s parents raised concerns with certain … materials included on the List.” Discussions among parents and the school district regarding teachers talking about White privilege and what it meant to be anti-racist grew heated. The school board president noted at the time that the parents’ concerns were “based on the content of the resources, not the author or topic.”

“I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s White,” Matt Weyant, a parent, told CNN.

In November, the school board “unanimously approved a decision to freeze the use of these resources” pending a review, Johnson said.

A Twitter account named Central York Banned Book Club compiled a lengthy list of every book and resource that had been prohibited by the district. “The copy is tiny because the list is massive,” the account tweeted Sunday.

Blowback from students, teachers, parents and alumni escalated months after the decision, according to the York Dispatch, after Central York High School Principal Ryan Caufman sent an Aug. 11 email with a four-page list attached to the note: “Please see the attached list of resources that are not to be permitted to be utilized in the classroom.”

In response, students of color who felt their voices were not being heard began protesting the school district’s decision. Student Edha Gupta described the ban at a Monday rally as “a dagger in my heart,” saying she no longer recognized “the inclusive loving diverse Central that has been a part of my life since preschool.”

“Our thoughts are being invalidated,” Gupta told WGAL. “There’s only one portion of the community that this ban represents, and it’s not ours.”

Ellis told the outlet that a list banning so many BIPOC authors — Black, Indigenous and people of color — “shows discrimination.”

“We believe this is wrong,” she said. At this week’s protest, she said, “When we see wrong, we do something about it.”

What began as a small daily protest of a few students soon mushroomed into a larger effort that included national headlines on CNN and Fox News. Some of the authors also began speaking out against the district’s ban. Brad Meltzer, author of “I Am Rosa Parks” and “I Am Martin Luther King, Jr.,” two of the books included in the list, said he was “heartbroken” over the ban. Meltzer, who is White, wrote the children’s titles as part of his Ordinary People Change the World series.

“We wrote these books to give our kids these lessons of empathy and perseverance. That’s what this whole series is about,” Meltzer told Fox News, saying the book ban was not a “Republican or Democrat” issue. “And you’re telling me they’ve got to vet a children’s book about Rosa Parks?”

His sentiments were echoed by Marti Dumas, whose children’s series “Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest,” was also prohibited by the school district. Dumas told the Dispatch she was shocked that her series about a kindergarten genius who solves problems using the scientific method was not allowed.

“I know 100 percent that nobody read this book,” Dumas said. “Unfortunately, this seems like a textbook example of when we talk about institutional racism.”

At a heated virtual school board meeting this week, Meltzer reiterated that the district had made a terrible decision.

“When you’re banning Dr. King and Rosa Parks, you’re on the wrong side of history,” he said.

After the reversal was announced, some board members apologized for the delay in the review.

“I don’t believe it was or is helpful to hold up an entire list, period,” board member Tim Strickler said at the virtual meeting.

Ben Hodge, a Central York High School teacher and the staff adviser for the student group, described the student activists as “heroes” who “should be celebrated as bastions of American freedom and democracy.”

“I want to be clear — these kids did this,” he told The Post.

Gupta said that while the students are “surprised and joyful” about the reversal, more work needs to be done in the district “to start making students of color not feel isolated.”

“Even though it is important to celebrate this victory, we acknowledge that discrimination in the district did not disappear,” she said to The Post.

Shortly before this week’s vote, Nathan Grove, a 2000 graduate of Central York High School, commended the school board for not only taking the criticism but also accomplishing something that once seemed unlikely in a polarized country.

“CNN’s Don Lemon and Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade agreed on something. They both said banning books is wrong,” Grove told the school board. “You’re bringing the country together.”

Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.

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