PENNCREST approves policy to restrict library materials
By Mike Crowley
Two moments near the beginning and conclusion of the PENNCREST School Board meeting held Thursday served as powerful bookends to a rancorous evening that saw board members vote 5-3 to approve a controversial revision to the district’s policy on library materials.
Marking the beginning of the evening’s drama was a three-sided standoff: behind the tables set up for board members in the Saegertown Elementary cafeteria was board President Luigi DeFrancesco, attempting to explain the ground rules and time limitations for public comments; across the room, up from her seat in response to the rules DeFrancesco was outlining was an audience member attempting to lodge a Sunshine Act objection; against a side wall was a security officer.
As the audience member argued that all 12 registered speakers should be allotted five minutes to speak, despite the district’s policy limiting public comment to a total of 30 minutes, DeFrancesco grew impatient.
“The rules are the rules,” DeFrancesco replied, before telling the audience member to sit down. When she appealed to the See PENNCREST, Page A6
Continued from Page A1 district’s attorney to go on, DeFrancesco grew angry.
“Hey, you address the chair,” he yelled. “I’m the chair and I’m saying sit down.”
As the woman persisted, DeFrancesco stood from his chair and directed the officer to remove her. The officer, taking a few steps toward the audience, seemed more interested in defusing the situation than in following the order.
“You’re not being orderly,” he told the woman, “so you can either sit down or we can walk outside.”
Instead, attorney Arthur Martinucci intervened and allowed the woman to state her entire objection. She then took her seat and the meeting proceeded.
While the objecting audience member did not take a “walk outside,” a board member did.
As is usual, the meeting concluded with board member remarks. Jennifer Davis, who had opposed the revised policy on library materials, described her growing frustration with the board’s meetings in recent months.
“I’ve left a number of the board meetings, probably the last five or six, that I’ve written my resignation letter in my head on the way home. Because I’m not a quitter and I’m truly dedicated to the students in this district, I threw those letters out,” Davis said. “You pushed me over the edge tonight. I’m done.”
A moment later, as Vice President Bob Johnston congratulated district students for various accomplishments, Davis gathered her things
and walked out.
For Davis, Theresa Croll and Tim Brown, the three board members who opposed the new library materials policy, as well as many in the audience of about 60, the source of frustration was more than just the changes to a policy that had been unanimously approved just six months ago. It was also their knowledge that there was little they could do to prevent the revised policy from being adopted.
Five board members had already expressed support for the changes in previous discussions, even Fred Bryant, who on Monday was appointed with five votes to fill a vacant seat.
The foundation of their objections was the belief that the policy revision was aimed squarely at books like those included in a Pride Month display in the Maplewood Junior-Senior High School library in May 2021. Controversy over the display exploded when board member David Valesky posted on Facebook about it.
“Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids,” Valesky wrote then.
Valesky chairs the board’s policy committee, which proposed the revisions approved Thursday.
Those revisions require the district to prioritize materials “that do not contain sexualized content” in selecting library materials. They also explicitly prohibit material that contains “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.”
Opponents of the revised policy not only portrayed it as targeting LGBTthemed content, they also said the policy had not been vetted by the district’s attorney and would almost certainly open the cash-strapped district to lawsuits. A similar policy adopted by Central Bucks School District last summer was a major factor in leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania to file a federal complaint against the district.
There are certainly some materials that should be banned, the board members opposing the revision acknowledged, but the policy’s vague language would almost certainly lead to unintended consequences or abuse. Could “The Scarlet Letter” or “The Great Gatsby,” both of which depict adulterous relationships, be kept out of district libraries as a result?
In addition, the opponents said, the policy changes were unnecessary because the district already has a mechanism for removing inappropriate materials. And while concern over library materials has drawn hundreds of residents to recent meetings, Davis pointed out, the process for removing inappropriate materials has not once been used in recent years — until this week, that is. Davis herself filed a request for reconsideration of seven books, the first such request received by the district since Superintendent Tim Glasspool was hired in June 2018.
Protecting children from pornography
Supporters of the policy revision may not have been frustrated — they had the votes to pass the changes they wanted, after all — but they were at least a bit dumbfounded.
“I honestly can’t understand how anyone can defend pornography being read by minors. That’s bizarre to me, but you heard it tonight,” Bryant said immediately after the meeting. “It’s ridiculous.”
Bryant said supporters of the policy revision had assembled a list of hundreds of books in district libraries that need to be reviewed for potentially problematic content. Some of those books, he insisted, contain scenes of a sexual nature that are “illegal” to distribute to minors.
Board member Amber Tyson Wright said she had considered the possibility of unintended consequences as well. Could the new policy lead to a book like her beloved “Les Miserables” being prohibited?
The answer, she said, is no because of the revised policy’s careful wording: It specifically bans “explicit written descriptions of sexual acts” not just any such descriptions. “Les Mis” may include some steamy scenes, but those scenes are not explicit, according to Tyson Wright.
The district’s existing policy allowing for the removal of inappropriate library material, Valesky argued, is insufficient because it allows inappropriate material to enter the libraries in the first place. Parents shouldn’t be forced to police the libraries book by book in search of sexualized content, nor should taxpayers be required to fund the purchase of such material.
Rather than submitting a form after sexualized content has been placed on library shelves in the hopes that librarians will remember which students are not allowed to have which books, the new policy will prevent such a situation from occurring, according to Valesky.
Valesky acknowledged the possibility of the policy facing legal challenge, but said the risk was worth it.
“It is essential. This policy needs to be pushed through. It’s legal and my conscience is clear on it. If we go to court over it, so be it,” he said, “because at the end of the day we’re standing up for what’s right and for what God has said is right and true.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.
“You pushed me over the edge tonight.
Jennifer Davis PENNCREST board member