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PA School Board Reverses Ban on Anti-Racism Resources after Student Outcry

PA School Board Reverses Ban on Anti-Racism Resources after Student Outcry

On August 11, 2021, Central York High School Principal Ryan Caufman sent all of the educators in the school a four page list of materials banned by the school board.

The email stated:

"Good afternoon - please see the attached list of resources that are not permitted to be utilized in the classroom. Please review and double check to make sure that none of these resources are being used."
"Thank you for your support!"

Central York High School

The attached list included books, movies, interviews and articles—most by or about people of color.

Among them were Oscar-nominated PBS documentary I Am Not Your Negro about writer James Baldwin; materials recommended by the National Education Association; picture books Fry Bread: A Native American Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer; Malala's Magic Pencil by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and They Called Us Enemy, George Takei's graphic memoir about Japanese internment.

CNN spoke to students and teachers about the banned resources.

In response to his book being banned, actor and civil rights activist Takei stated:

"This kind of book banning is a threat and a peril to our democracy. It is outrageous that a so called 'educational institution' is the culprit."
"But then, in a post-Trump Pennsylvania, this is the kind of 'democracy' to which we have degenerated."

Pennsylvania state Democratic Representative and candidate for Lieutenant Governor Brian Sims also spoke out against the ban by the Central York school board.

How things got to this point is a complicated tale over a year in the making and driven by national hysteria and misinformation over Critical Race Theory (CRT).

The summer of 2020 brought calls for racial justice and increased attention to diversity and inclusion. Private businesses and government agencies alike were asked to step up at national and local levels.

The community of York, Pennsylvania—the 11th largest city in the state—was no exception.

The Central York School District seemingly had a head start with a district Diversity Committee in place for over a decade and a Panther Anti-Racist Student Union at Central York High School—where the panther is the school mascot.

And the district was set for a periodic review of social studies curriculum anyway.

So in August 2020, the district suggested an anti-racism curriculum with proposed lesson plans focused on better teaching students about diversity and systemic racism throughout history. The district Diversity Committee and teachers in the school system compiled an extensive list of anti-racism resources.

But not everyone on the Central York school board thought anti-racism should be addressed in schools.

At an August 2020 meeting where the proposed changes were up for a vote, board member Vickie Guth said:

"I see a lot of references to social justice. Is that new because of current events?"
"Because I can tell you at the Diversity Committee meeting too, the loudest voices are the ones pressing an agenda that Ms. [Veronica] Gemma and I have a problem with."
"They are bound and determined to teach children that they are racist if they are White and they need to be changed so that they won't be."

Guth continued:

"The references that were made in this committee about teaching tolerance talked about White privilege and White saviorism."
"So, you can't win. If you're normal, you're a White privilege. If you're trying to change things, you're doing it out of the savior mentality."

Board member Veronica Gemma added:

"Do we even have a problem?"
"And if we don't, then why are bringing this into the classroom to teach these benchmarks based on what happened in July?"

Later in the meeting, Gemma stated:

"Reverse racism is still racism."

The curriculum vote was ultimately tabled in August 2020 and again in September. All curriculum changes require a majority vote of the nine person board.

Without approval, any updates or changes can't go into affect. So tabling is effectively a "no" vote.

In the interim, several protests were held and editorials written about the board members' comments and the lack of diversity on the all White school board.

In October, the board got into contentious discussions with district personnel specifically about the resources list.

Assistant Superintendent Robert Grove said the list was merely a compilation of media discussed during diversity committee meetings in case somebody wanted to check it out—a list with links available.

But some board members claimed it was the actual curriculum. Another said it was what teachers would be told to use.

One board member stated:

"We have diversity—we love it, we enjoy it, we celebrate it, we want it—we're not rejecting that.
"We're rejecting the one-sided pieces of those resources. It was one-sided teaching."

Another said:

"The diversity committee came up with resources and development to help them know how to deal with the subject."
"And some of us took exception to what they were promoting to the teachers."

No vote was taken in October, but in November the board made the unanimous decision to ban all resources on the list.

Board member Veronica Gemma said at the time the resources would create division and make White children feel bad about themselves.

But with the pandemic and remote learning dominating the school year, little more was said about the vote or the list.

Then in August 2021, the email with the list was sent.

As news spread from the teachers immediately impacted to the students, parents and general community, protests and other responses were made.

Lauri Lebo—spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association questioned if the Central York school board members read any of the materials on the list they unanimously banned.

Lebo said in an email:

"They're banning material from Sesame Street, but not David Duke. They're banning PBS, but not the KKK."
"They've even banned the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators' statement on racism—which acknowledges that racism exists and is bad."

In response, Central York school board president Jane Johnson claimed a "significant portion" of parents were concerned some materials on the resource list were polarizing. Johnson said the board decided to "freeze" the use of the resources in November 2020 "pending restoration of the Board curriculum-oversight mechanism."

She added the board embraces diversity, but believes education shouldn't include "indoctrination from any political or social agenda."

And not all parents are against the ban.

In a district that is 82% White, the board's sentiments might reflect more parents than people are comfortable admitting.

One mother stated at a recent board meeting:

"The community is 100% against an critical race theory indoctrination agenda."
"Schools are not the place for politics or identity to be shaped."

While CRT is not part of any primary or secondary school curriculum, it appears inclusion and diversity in education will be another victim of outrage based on misinformation.

It was students, however, who won the battle on Monday night.

Their outcry resulted in the school board unanimously voting to end the book freeze. On Monday afternoon, around 200 students and parents demonstrated outside the meeting space.

Ben Hodge, a York Central High School theatre teacher, told The Philadelphia Inquirer the credit belongs to the students.

He further said the students...

"...are heroes and should be celebrated as bastions of American freedom and democracy. I want to be clear, these kids did this."

Well said, sir.