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In heated meeting, Nazareth Area School Board tables book review vote, discusses updating policies

School directors voted 5-1 to table an item on Tuesday’s agenda about whether to uphold the findings of a district staff committee that reviewed “Push.” The decision was made in part so that the board can determine whether its procedural regulations for reviewing resource material, such as library books, need to be updated.

Jennifer Simon, a district parent, submitted the reconsideration request for “Push” under district Policy 109 regarding resource material. Simon, secretary for the Northampton County chapter of Moms for Liberty, believes the book should be removed from the library.

“Push” is about an illiterate, Harlem teenager who is physically and sexually abused by her parents, but who is empowered when she is taught how to write about her life by a teacher. The book is the inspiration for the 2009 film “Precious.”

Simon said Tuesday she read “Push” herself and believes it is an “adult” book. She said the retailer Target sells the book with a suggested reader age of 22 or older. She also noted the movie “Precious” is rated R.

“What I am suggesting is that books available in a public school should be age appropriate for the students that attend,” Simon said. “Why isn’t that what everyone wants?”

The review committee and district administration recommended “Push” remain in the high school library’s collection, but that access to it be restricted for Simon’s child. The committee of seven administrators and teachers voted 4-3 for that decision, meaning three district staff members thought the book should be removed from the library entirely.

Superintendent Richard Kaskey said he would have recommended the book remain in the library even if the majority of committee members thought it should be removed.

“I am a superintendent of a public school, and I have to look at upholding the law and making sure the First Amendment rights of our children are not violated,” Kaskey said.

The school board can override the superintendent’s recommendation with six votes, a two-thirds board majority.

Kaskey said the district could consider a policy in which board directors review potential library books before they hit shelves; this wouldn’t apply to books currently in school libraries.

Simon submitted the reconsideration request for “Push,” along with three other books she says are “explicit” and do not belong in the high school library: “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga, “Sold” by Patricia McCormick and “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins. It cost the district more than $15,000 to pay staff committees to review all four books. Simon only appealed the committee results for “Push,” which brought the issue before the school board Tuesday.

The district has not said what the committee recommendations were for the other books, but noted that none of them have been removed from the shelves.

Many people spoke during public comment at the meeting about library books, including those who support keeping “Push” on district shelves.

Jessica Dieck, a district parent, said she wouldn’t let her young children read “Push” now, but would allow it when they’re in high school.

“That book will give them an insight into what others may have gone through without those individuals having to relive or retell aspects of their journey that are hurtful to share and express,” she said.

Jeffrey Hotz, a district resident, said he doesn’t support banning “Push” or the other three books that have been challenged. He said libraries are meant to provide “access to material, knowledge and diverse points of view.”

“I think the trajectory of the book bans and this discussion will lead to empty library shelves, empty bank accounts for the district and, down the road, empty minds,” he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Simon suggested a policy in which parents must opt in to allow their students to access “books with mature or explicit content.” The district already allows parents to restrict book access for their children by working with the building principal on an individual basis.

Aly Warner, a district parent and chair of the Northampton County Moms for Liberty, said it’s “sneaky” for the district “to leave out the important step of proactively notifying all parents” of “questionable” titles in district libraries.

“We are not asking for anything radical,” she said, noting the district already sends permission slips home for other circumstances, like field trips.

Charlotte McElroy, a recent district graduate, said “Push” shouldn’t be banned, but books like it should require permission slips.

“What does ‘Push’ represent to a child when the book is about incest and rape?” she said. “Why would we educate our kids on how to have sex?”

After a lengthy public comment section, school directors discussed “Push,” appropriate reading materials for students and district review regulations before deciding to table the recommendation item.

School Director Wayne Simpson said “Push” is “absolute filth” and noted the committee finding wasn’t unanimous.

School Director Adam McGlynn, the only board member to vote against tabling the agenda item, said public schools and libraries are meant to make books accessible so people can “understand the lived experiences of others.”

“A decision was already made to allow this book into the library, so a decision to remove it from the library is a decision of a lot of gravity,” he said.

McGlynn, along with Director Linda Stubits and Vice President Melissa Kalinoski, said they were concerned about the cost of implementing the district’s regulations for reviewing controversial titles. Staff members are paid for their time reading and discussing a book, as was the case with the four titles Simon challenged.

“For now I’d like to leave things just as they are, review the policy, review the [regulations], see if there’s a way to review the situation so that it can be more of a win-win situation,” Stubits said.

Kalinoski said the district should incorporate suggestions from community members on both sides of the issue about how to review books. Stubits also suggested the review process be altered so staff committee members have more space to explain their answers to specific questions about the book being reviewed.

Stubits and Director Kathryn Roberts expressed concern about the content of “Push,” but worried a decision Tuesday would have dictated how the board must handle any future book challenges. They fear elementary school books and award-winning classics will be challenged in the future.

Roberts noted there’s “vulgarity” in some worthwhile literature, like the works of William Shakespeare. She would consider a “top shelf” system or “caution” warning for “sexually explicit” content in district libraries, but not political topics, adding implementation would need to be discussed.

“It’s a depiction with words what would be considered child pornography if it were a visual depiction,” Roberts, a criminal defense attorney, said of “Push,” noting she wouldn’t let her child read it.

Board President Gregory Leh said the discussion of library books has become politicized through phrases like “book bans.” The issue at hand is one of “restriction and permission,” he said.

Leh said he believes in “parental choice” and doesn’t support removing any books in the library. He said “Push” has only been checked out by two students in the entire time it’s been in the library.

“How much of an impact do you believe that has had on Nazareth Area School District students in 13 years?” he said.

Leh said the board could consider the possibility of sending home permission slips, but noted implementation challenges. There are more than 60,000 books in all district libraries.

When asked about the feasibility of a permission slip system or caution marking for district books, Kaskey said the administration will have to look into the suggestions with its attorney.

With an election next month and three Nazareth Area seats that are contested, the school board’s makeup will likely change before the district fully confronts its book review policies and “Push” head on.