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Calls for banning books on the rise in Lehigh Valley school districts

School library books are the subject to censorship in some school districts.

SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP, Pa. — Requests to ban or restrict school library books have popped up this school year in at least two Lehigh Valley school districts.

It's part of a larger national trend in which some school districts, and even states such as Florida, are regulating the types of books students can access at school.

  • Nazareth and Parkland school districts have received lists of books from some parents who want them to be removed or restricted at the school libraries
  • Both districts say nothing has been removed from shelves or prevents student's ability to access them
  • The parents who want the books banned say the books have content that is inappropriate and/or has nothing to do with educating students.

Parkland's proposed book ban

David Horvath is a parent in Parkland School District who is calling for banning or removing books from the physical shelves of the school libraries.

Horvath said he became concerned about what his kids were being exposed to in their remote classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s what sparked my eye a little bit,” he said. “That’s not the usual stuff that you see in a library or on a curriculum.”

Horvath said the online school library has a lot of what he describes as "sexually explicit books." He said he’s working to gain access to the district’s logs of what’s on the physical shelves.

Nicole McGalla, a district spokeswoman, said in an email that Parkland has two aspects to its online book-sharing program. One is school-based, where a certified librarian from that school chooses the content for just the students of that school. Kids then can access content based on grade level.

Students also have access to the Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21 online book collection, which is used by multiple districts. A committee of certified librarians from each district chooses the content for students in those participating schools according to grade levels.

Horvath and former school board candidate Laura Warmkessel shared with LehighValleyNews.com a list of 15 online books to which they object. Horvath said it’s part of a longer list about which they’re concerned.

Warmkessel was supported in her campaign by the Moms for Liberty Lehigh County chapter. Moms for Liberty, a national organization founded in Florida as a parental rights group, has worked to get books removed from school libraries across the United States.

“The physical books are easier to get removed from the shelves because you're only going with the Parkland committee."
David Horvath, Parkland parent

Of the 15 books on Horvath and Warmkessel's list, 13 discuss LGBTQ issues or have LGBTQ characters. In the two additional books: one book uses primary and secondary sources to discuss the crime of date rape, the second is about the Black experience in America, from the civil rights movement to the present.

A national trend

PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression, said the 2022-23 school year has been marked by “an escalation of book bans and censorship in classrooms and school libraries across the United States.”

The group said bans nationwide have overwhelmingly targeted stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Attempts to ban books also have been seen in other school districts in Pennsylvania, such as Central York in York County and Pleasant Valley in Monroe County, according to the group.

Horvath said his goal is to pull from the shelves the physical books he believes are inappropriate.

“The physical books are easier to get removed from the shelves because you're only going with the Parkland committee," he said.

"I’m not really concerned about the online books as much as I am the physical library, so I’m trying to get more information on their dataset. Their data on their books in the library.”

During last month's primary election, Warmkessel advocated for a parental consent policy for students wanting to access certain library books.

"I think a system really needs to be established where certain books need parental consent, and we leave it there, we put it back in the parent's control," she said.

"And other kids don't have access to it. So we don't take them off of our shelves. We don't ban them. We just make it a consent type of policy."

Parkland spokeswoman McGalla said in an email for a book to be removed, a citizen must fill out a form detailing the concern with the material. Then a reconsideration committee reviews the challenged material and makes a decision.

No form has been filled out, McGalla said.

Democratic Parkland School Board Candidate Chris Pirrotta said parents need to be involved in their children’s lives. But he added that school librarians, teachers and staff are educated in what content is appropriate for what age groups.

“I trust the experts,” he said. “I trust these folks who get hired by the district. Now, if there’s specific issues or challenges, I feel like it’s always important to have a dialogue when people have concerns.

“In the same vein, have that dialogue and if it doesn’t go your way. Don’t claim that you’re not being listened to. That’s what I see a lot of.

"There’s ‘You might not agree with that,’ but society as a whole is OK with that, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a conversation about it. And that’s a lot of what I see in the political space today related to books and schools,” Pirrotta said.

Nazareth meetings see debate on book censorship

Former Nazareth school board candidate Thomas McElroy emailed the district in late March with a list of more than 20 books he said were inappropriate for students, sparking debate at school board meetings.

Many books on the list include discussions of sex, racism or gender.

Nazareth parent Liz Sommers said at a recent board meeting that she trusts trained and experienced librarians to decide what books are on the shelves, not what some parents would prefer.

"When we allow parents to decide what should and shouldn't be taught in the classroom, we are no longer making decisions based on best practices from experts in the field, but rather yielding to popular and sometimes loud opinions," she said.

McElroy, who was endorsed by Northampton County Moms for Liberty, and some of the chapter members read from one of the books on his list, "Push," by Sapphire, at a board meeting in early May.

The book, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film, is about a Black teenager who is sexually and physically abused by her parents. Pregnant and illiterate, she meets a teacher who changes her life. PEN America said it’s currently the sixth-most banned book.

“How does this smut support or enrich the educational program of Nazareth?” said Jennifer Simon, chair of the Moms for Liberty Northampton chapter.

“These do not enhance anything at all. It’s disgusting and you should all be ashamed of yourselves if you don’t do something about it.”

“Restricting access to books will discourage teachers and librarians from introducing new ideas and expanding children's minds."
Liz Sommers, Nazareth parent

Sommers told Nazareth board members that parents should not be allowed to impose on other parents what should be taught, or demand education programs reflect their personal preferences.

“Restricting access to books will discourage teachers and librarians from introducing new ideas and expanding children's minds,” she said.

“It will dissuade children from asking questions for fear of addressing offensive or inappropriate topics. It will teach them that fear and ignorance supersede the quest for knowledge.”

District officials said none of the books have been removed from the library.

Book bans on the November ballot

Some Lehigh Valley districts could see book bans if candidates who support them take a majority of seats in November. They'll likely need strong turnout among their base and independents to do that.

While many cross-filed to run on both tickets in the primary, most failed to make ground with Democratic voters.

Several school boards have large numbers of open seats and many new GOP candidates. Some call themselves "true Republicans" and succeeded in their primary races last month by pushing national wedge issues around race and gender.

Of six candidates Moms for Liberty groups endorsed in the primary across the valley, four advanced to the ballot for November. Two of those, Elmo Frey Jr. and Madeline Gladstone are on November's ballot in Nazareth's Region I.

Many candidates in several districts, including Parkland, East Penn and Southern Lehigh, have decided to run as slates this year. Thanks to cross-filing, several slates with Democrats and moderate Republicans will appear as Democrats on ballots in November, facing more conservative Republican slates running on the GOP side.

The outcome could show how successful culture war issues are among Lehigh Valley voters this year.