Friday, December 30, 2022

PA: Another District Clamping Down On Reading Rights

Penncrest School District is located in the NW corner of the state, located mostly in Crawford County. It's a mid-sized (around 3500 students K-12) district that was stitched together out of several very small rural districts

Penncrest has been home to the occasional controversy. Like back in May of 2021 when a couple of board members got upset about certain books in the library.

Two board members got in a Facebook flap over a collection of LGBTQ+ books displayed at the Maplewood High School Library. Board member David Valesky posted:

Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

Board member Jeff Brooks responded
 
There have always been gay students in our hallways. And unfortunately there have always been hateful voices looking to discriminate against them. Let's just be a little better today and not make kids [sic] lives worse by being hateful, bigoted and prejudiced.

Valesky later told the local newspaper that "he was against the school 'pushing' such topics onto the students," and that schools shouldn't have anything to do with "kids determining their sex or who they should be interested in." Brooks expressed his opposition to censoring books at school and that schools "need to be a safe place."

That was enough to prompt an on-line petition to remove two board members that currently has 4,899 signatures.

Then there was the time they refused a teacher's request to go present at the state Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts conference because some of the sessions at the conference sounded a little too critical race theory (her presentation was supposed to be about “Using Audio Analysis to Maximize Independent Reading Time”). 

Penncrest is once again focused on limiting the reading rights of its students. 

Back in May, Valesky held up the purchase of books for the library. In particular he singled out  the books "Global Citizenship: Engage in Politics of a Changing World" and "Nevertheless We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage" as promoting Black Lives Matter. Other books on the list pertaining to racism that Valesky did not approve of include "Finding Junie Kim," "Genesis Begins Again," "Apple Skin to the Core," "Downstairs Girl" and "Fat Chance."

Valesky explained at the board meeting, as reported by the Meadville Tribune:

"I don't have an issue if we're giving books that's targeting education of the Civil War and slavery and there is racism even today, but this is obviously like shoving it down every corner," he said.

Valesky said there were four books on the list that "openly promote the hate group Black Lives Matter."

"That's a group that is for destroying," he said. "They aren't protecting Black lives."

Valesky said the resource list needed to be "well-founded" and said the current version was "definitely far from it."

So in July, the board adopted new policies about library materials, including this guideline

Library materials will reflect and support the district’s educational goals and academic standards. The library resource collection will take into consideration the varied interests, abilities and maturity levels of the students served in each school. Materials will be chosen to stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values and ethical standards. Materials will be chosen to represent diverse points of view on all topics.

So just the facts, literary stuff is okay, maybe "art," and "ethical standards," though no guidance on whose ethics exactly.

But that wasn't enough. In December, Valesky, who heads the policy committee, was back with more revisions and more naughty books. 

One proposed change in policy is a ban on transgender students in sports (though nobody knows of any such athletes in the district). 

The new library policy has a proposed addition of several paragraphs:

The district Recognizes there exists a vast array of materials with rich educational value. It is the District's objective to choose material that provides such rich educational content appropriate to students in the district over material that may provide similar content but with elements that are inappropriate or unnecessary for minors in a school setting. 

Sexualized content that falls short of material prohibited by criminal laws is nonetheless generally inappropriate and/or unnecessary for minors in school. Parents/Guardians have a wide range of options outside of the district library system to introduce their child to sexualized content they deem appropriate for their child’s age. As such, the District will prioritize inclusion of quality materials suitable for educational goals and worthwhile for the limited amount of time available to students that do not contain sexualized content. 

No Material in District libraries shall contain: 

• Visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts, 
• Explicit written depictions of sexual acts, or 
• Visual depictions of nudity- not including materials with diagrams about anatomy for science or content relating to classical works of art

Valesky came to the meeting with examples of what he wants gone, including Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants," the basis for a 2011 Reece Witherspoon film; "Looking for Alaska," a John Green bestseller I've seen carried by umpty-gazzillion teen readers; and "Angus, Thong, and Full-Frontal Snogging" by Louise Rennison. Also on the list was "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out," the book that helped prompt his "totally evil" Facebook post. Valesky even offered a McCarthy-esque presentation, according to the Tribune:

"I have a list of books here in my hand, if anyone would like to look at them, of books that are in our libraries that promote this garbage and absolute trash to students," he said before wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

So, no sexy stuff, no nudity. It doesn't have to rise to the level of porn, and Valesky has made it clear that any depiction at all of LGBTQ persons is over the line. And if parents object to the school district banning these works for everybody's kids, they can just go get the stuff on their own.

Valesky is the point man on all this LGBTQ panic, but it would be a mistake to imagine that he is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. He was successfully re-elected in 2019. The December meeting featured many speakers objecting to the policy, but it also included some folks standing up to speak in favor, noting that "good people" wouldn't object to it. A speaker also notes that this language has been used in "many districts." (And if you want more, just check the comments).

The proposed changes should be up for a vote at the January 12 meeting. Expect some noise before then.

It's a small district far from big press and big city concerns. The selection of books for a school library is an issue that will always spark discussion and concern, but when a board considers erasing LGBTQ persons entirely or trying to convince young humans that sex is a big secret that they should never hear anything about or allowing the concerns of the most conservative members of a community to limit the right to read for all members--well, it's not just a local issue, and it is troubling. This story is being enacted all over the country; we'll see how this one plays out. 

11 comments:

  1. If you really want to know what is going on in this school district I suggest you read the proposed policies and call some one to answer your questions. It is not a very appropriate journalism conduct to print without verification nor to blindly print what your friends furnish you.
    Have you checked this out "erasing LGBTQ persons entirely "? You can do better.

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    1. I've looked at the proposed changes; there's a link to them in the post. As for erasing LGBTQ persons, how else would you describe a policy that forbids any mention of LGBTQ persons in the books in the library, implemented by a board member who calls any such references "evil"?

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    2. I have re-read the book policy as posted here. There is no mention of erasing anything LGBT. As a well respected local writer you should really get the facts straight.

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    3. This policy, like virtually every other version of similar policies across the country, is vague. The new language blocks any "sexualized content," which is an extraordinarily vague term; in Tennessee, that kind of language was used to protest a children's book with illustrations of seahorses that the protester deemed "too sexy."

      For the anti-LGBTQ crowd, anything that mentions LGBTQ persons is "sexualized content." What right wing activists have demonstrated and shared all across the country is that you don't have to explicitly ban LGBTQ content to accomplish a ban of LGBTQ content. This is just more of that, and board members have been extraordinarily clear about what their intent is.

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    4. It is evident that you are intentionally overstating the scope of this proposed policy. Personally I favor LGBT rights but the limiting of sexually explicit content as offered by public schools is absolutely appropriate. In the future I hope that common ground can be found where educators and admin will work together to stop the offering of absolute trash to our students. All of us do not embrace the hardline leftist anything goes approach.

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  2. No Material in District libraries shall contain:

    • Visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts,
    • Explicit written depictions of sexual acts, or
    • Visual depictions of nudity- not including materials with diagrams about anatomy for science or content relating to classical works of art

    But the unfettered access to the dark corners of the internet is not a problem? These same adults probably don't want to check their own kids search histories.

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    1. Exactly. If this was truly about keeping kids 'safe', library books would not be the focus.

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  3. Good for them! Keep that SMUT out of the library!!!

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  4. As a teacher in the Penncrest District I feel like I should offer my view on this issue. I have taught here for more than 32 years. In that time I have become familiar with most of the staff and administrators at the six schools. We serve in a quiet corner of NWPA where traditional small town family values persist. A rural area of Crawford County where life is good and a sense of community is strong. The issues laid out in your article only begin to tell the story of what is going on here.
    Most of us here just want to do our jobs and help our students do their best. We favor the restricting of books that only a few years ago would have never been allowed into our schools. These books are so bad that they violate PA Child Obscenity statutes! We believe that the school board is acting in good faith by enacting such protections for our students. A select few of my colleagues who are very capable educators have become radicalized and hold extreme positions on this subject especially pertaining to homosexuality. These few are known widely as belligerant idealists and anarchists. I feel that the students best interests would be served by leaving our politics at home and focusing on improving the academic performance of our students. When did sexuality become the main focus in education?

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  5. I haven't came across one parent who wants their children to read books containing sexualized content. Many of these books belong in an adult book store where proof of legal age is required. This type of content renders such books void of any redeeming academic value, therefore they have no place in a public school setting.

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  6. As a student there of PENNCREST, here’s my take on it.
    The policy’s exigence is very clear—to censor LGBTQ works. The problem comes to the abhorrent justification from the side pushing the censorship, that “sexual content” is a school library problem. Valesky is generalizing a misnomer that has been constantly reciprocated throughout right wing politics to justify the censorship of LGBTQ. The words I hear thrown out around this community is saddening to hear from other peers and people of the community that go as far as harassing and demeaning those who are in defense of the books. We all can agree as a common collective that, yes, legit sexual content does not have a place in a school library, but the term is loose and is abused in a sense to justify censorship of LGBTQ books. But the policy is also very disruptive, as it affects books that are a.) in the AP academia world for literature, which are widely accepted and aren’t regarded as “sex books” or the “evil” that are apparently a huge problem, and b.) it opens a door of opportunity of overreaching of power from the district. Who knows what could come next after the policy?
    In short, I don’t feel this policy will achieve anything, and what it actually does is: invokes room for discrimination by already bigoted board members,
    restricts the LGBTQ content in the library as a whole, (which crazy enough, it sounds like your children have a choice of picking up such book or choosing to not read about it because one of the things I was taught about the library in school was before looking for a book, to read a few pages and check the back and see what it’s about. Crazy how we’re taught to choose what book what we want to read.)
    and it sets a terrible precedent for other schools around the area and creating more of a bad stigma for our district. (When I mention PENNCREST, people laugh. It’s the same with CASH. Our district is the laughing stock of the area.
    It’s time to wake up people.
    Fear mongering that LGBTQ books will turn your child gay or any other word you want to associate “sexual content” with, is childish, and is laughable.

    I’ll leave a bombshell here as a doorknob confession too— why else do you think people are moving away and enrolling less in your districts, Crawford County? The Meadville Tribune posted an article highlighting the continued downward trend of enrollment in Crawford County amongst the districts that embody the area in Sept. of 2022.
    https://www.meadvilletribune.com/news/student-enrollments-continue-to-fall-in-local-districts/article_b22cee86-39ec-11ed-a7e2-b3dbe255701e.html

    The same thing was said for Penncrest in 2020, as well.

    https://www.meadvilletribune.com/news/penncrest-sees-lower-than-usual-drop-in-enrollment/article_b36ef796-f3a6-11ea-8ef1-2b27592c954a.html

    People will continue to move away from Crawford County and find better education for their kids because our district is too busy focused on “problems” that don’t need fixing. Sure, I’m all good for a reformation and a review of books in the library to determine what’s safe, but not for censoring works just because you don’t agree with it because it doesn’t align with your views.

    Also, I forgot to mention.
    This policy won’t do much regardless.
    The libraries aren’t even open throughout school and if they are, it’s lucky because of how much they cut librarians. Not to mention the schedule— the library is a place where a student doesn’t have time for.
    There is no time a student can voluntarily go the library other than permission from a teacher, (provided that the library is open), lunch, or the small 3 minute window time between classes. So really, the board is really going after a problem that doesn’t exist—because the problem can’t even be made in the first place if the student can’t even find the time to look for a book. The only time students can really get a book is during classroom instructional time and is usually during English classes.
    Anyways, hope this comment enlightens someone at least.

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