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August 22, 2023

After rejecting a request to ban books, one Chester County school district now hears an appeal

The Oxford Area School District finds itself in a similar situation as other school systems in the region, facing coordinated efforts to remove materials from libraries and curricula

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Oxford book ban Kristin Hunt/PhillyVoice

'The Hate U Give,' the 2017 bestselling novel by Angie Thomas, is among four books that could be banned by the Oxford Area School District's board members on Tuesday. A district committee previously rejected a request to remove the books from the system's high school library.

UPDATE: The Oxford Area School District's boardmembers voted to override the advisory committee's decision on all titles except "The Hate U Give." "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" will be removed from the library while "Lucky" and "The Bluest Eye" will be moved to a restricted section.

The school board of the Oxford Area School District will gather on Tuesday evening to discuss four books, and whether they belong on the shelves of Oxford Area High School.

The books are "The Bluest Eye," Toni Morrison's debut 1970 novel; "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky; "Lucky" by Alice Sebold; and "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas. All four books were the subject of a complaint that the school district reviewed earlier this year, resulting in an advisory committee's vote to keep them in the high school's library.

But now, an appeal will be considered on Tuesday.

The Oxford Area School District serves the small borough of Oxford and the surrounding, largely rural towns all located more than 50 miles southeast of Philadelphia. At the school board's last meeting on Aug. 8, video of which has circulated on Facebook, at least one board member argued that all four books were "indecent" or "profane" and should be removed or require parental consent to check out. In the public comment period that followed, a local pastor questioned why it wasn't easier to remove books from the school library and a woman accused school district officials of "sexually abusing" her grandchildren by carrying the titles. Several parents countered with support for the books.

In an email, school board president Joseph E. Tighe said the disputed books were currently available "in very limited quantities" and that he did not know who initiated the original complaint. 

The 12-person advisory committee — the members of which included librarians, teachers, a principal in the school district, a PTA member and a board of education employee — voted against removing the books from the school by substantial margins, according the tallies read by Tighe in the Aug. 8 meeting. The votes in favor of keeping "The Hate U Give" and "The Bluest Eye," for example, broke 11-1.

Challenges regarding the appropriateness of books in schools, like what's happening Oxford, and outright bans have become more common in the Philadelphia region.

Washington Township High School in South Jersey removed "The Bluest Eye" from its ninth grade curriculum this in the spring, while Downington High School West — located about 30 miles from Oxford in a more suburban and affluent part of Chester County — temporarily banned "Gender Queer," "All Boys Aren't Blue" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" from its library shelves in 2021. (The books were ultimately returned.)

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania over the past two years, there have been bans or challenges to books in North Penn and Wissahickon school districts in Montgomery County, Pennridge School District in Bucks County and Kutztown Area School District in Berks County, according to Pen America, an organization that protects free expression.

Perhaps no school district in Pennsylvania has garnered more attention for its book bans than Central Bucks School District, which adopted a controversial policy last year making easier to challenge and remove books from school libraries. The school district's perceived focus on titles with LGBTQ content is cited in a federal Title IX complaint filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania last fall.

Book bans and challenges have become so pervasive in Pennsylvania that watchdogs like the ACLU admit they're struggling to keep up.

"We don't have a problem at the statewide level, like we're seeing in places like Florida and Texas, where there's a lot more censorship at the state level," Rich Ting, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Pennsylvania, said. "But the thing that makes it a little more challenging is that we have so many school districts that it's hard to kind of keep track of and address every single district that is doing something like that."

Ting said the vaguely worded policies of many school district makes it easier to file complaints and challenge books. General limits on "sexualized" or "sexual" content, he said, can be used to target titles with LGBTQ content. When Central Bucks School District adopted its new library policy, four of the five initial titles under review for removal had LGBTQ themes and two were ultimately removed. The school district is now considering banning another 56 books.

Supporters of the bans, including some attendees at the last Oxford Area School District meeting, argue that parents who do not object to the books have plenty of ways to access them — such as via their local public libraries, bookstores and the internet. Those on the other side of the debate say access cannot be assumed, and that restriction perpetuates harmful ideas.

"When you remove things from the school library, that kind of sends a message to people and to kids," Ting said. "If, for example, the only books that get removed are books with LGBTQ themed content, that certainly sends a message that there's maybe something wrong with that content, right? Which can be very damaging to kids who are part of that community."

As the Oxford Area School District prepares for its vote on a decision to appeal at its Tuesday meeting, those kids and their parents will be watching.

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