LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — A Midstate school district is the latest flashpoint for cultural controversy. The Hempfield School District in Lancaster County is working on a new policy for school library materials, which some parents are calling a book ban.
The school board has already approved the policy once, but it has to approve it again before it can take effect. The board said this began after some community members expressed concern about some library materials. Other parents argue this policy would infringe on students’ rights.
“It says these books will not be available to students,” Jamie Beth Cohen said.
Cohen lives in the Hempfield School District. Her kids are no longer in Hempfield schools, but she is still concerned about the new policy from the school board on library materials.
“The language that they were adding to the policy was subjective,” she said.
The policy lays out guidelines for school library materials, such as including varying levels of reading difficulty and different types of materials. However, the part of the policy that has faced backlash is that sexually explicit content will not be available to students.
The policy defines sexually explicit content as “content that encourages an excessive interest in sexual matters, as well as graphically describes or illustrates sexual behavior or acts.”
According to the policy, the superintendent can also notify the board of recommendations to remove material over parental concerns. The superintendent would be in charge of reviewing materials to determine if they meet policy guidelines.
“Those are opinions. Those are words that don’t have definitions, that are not defined in the policy and that are subjective. So what a parent might find excessive in a sexual content for their child may not be what I consider excessive sexual content in a book for my child,” Cohen said.
Cohen said the existing federal definition of pornography and obscenity is enough. However, a spokesperson for the school board said its proposed policy requires a book to meet both prongs of the sexually explicit content definition to be removed, which, the board believes, is a very high standard.
Regardless, Cohen agrees with the American Library Association. The ALA says, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group” and defines a ban as “the removal of those materials” from a library.
The ALA also addresses materials challenged over sexually explicit or inappropriate content. Under their policy concerning access to information, the ALA states “Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”
Cohen said that is her problem with the school’s policy — it would allow other parents to challenge materials, and if those materials are removed, that would deny her own children or other parents’ children access.
“There are parents in this district who are not afraid of sexuality, and those parents who are shouldn’t define what our children have access to in their library,” she said.
The argument that this policy amounts to a book ban is not shared by every parent.
“It’s got nothing to do with banning books,” Hempfield parent Richard Boyer said.
Boyer said he has not problem with the books being available; he just does not want them accessible in schools.
“Does it deserve its space on a shelf at Barnes & Noble? Absolutely, absolutely. But such extreme content material that’s incredibly graphic should not be part of the curriculum or materials in a school,” he said.
Boyer added this is not an ideological issue.
“It’s got nothing to do with religion. It’s got nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It’s not a matter of who’s right. It’s a matter of what’s right.”
Cohen said this policy is not right, but she said the political process might be the right answer.
“The best bet is to vote the incumbent members off of the board,” she said.
The Hempfield School Board also released a statement about the policy:
“Over the past several months, the Board has heard from a number of Hempfield community members who have expressed concern about some items in the District’s library collection. The Board and Administration reviewed applicable District policies with the goals of maintaining a diverse collection of library resources while ensuring that students are not exposed to sexually explicit content/material that does not have educational value. The definitions and procedures outlined in Policy 109 were carefully crafted in furtherance of these important goals.”Hempfield School Board spokesperson
The next Hempfield School Board meeting is on June 13, which is when the board could approve the policy and second time and it would take effect.