Bermudian Springs school board votes to restrict sexual content in school materials

The Bermudian Springs school board voted 8-1 to update its resource materials policy to reduce sexual content in district materials, a move supporters applaud but critics call a book ban.

Policy 109 – Resource Materials was adopted March 14, 2006. Less than two pages long, the original guidelines include that materials “shall be suited to the varied interests, abilities, reading levels, and maturation levels of the students to be served.”

The updated version is now almost four pages and more specifically defines what materials are allowable, focusing on sexual content. The restrictions are separated for elementary, middle and high school materials.

The changes to Policy 109 have sparked arguments among board members and have prompted many residents to reach out to the board. During the board’s caucus meeting on Monday and regular voting meeting on Tuesday, many individuals used the public comment period to address their concerns.

On Tuesday, the public comment period comprised the vast majority of the meeting, lasting over two hours.

The definitions in the updated policy define sex acts “as sexual intercourse, masturbation, sadism, masochism, bestiality, fellatio, cunnilingus, sodomy, exhibition of genitals or nudity if such nudity is depicted for the purpose of sexual stimulation or gratification, or any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts.”

The updated policy further defines “implied sex acts” as “a depiction that implies that a sex act is about to occur, is occurring, or has just occurred.”

In the updated version, a new committee, CIRA (Curriculum, Instruction, Resource and Assessment) exists to help review and approve materials when needed. Materials fall into a “borderline” category “when an administrator is unsure if a resource material meets the criteria of the age-appropriate guidelines below,” and the administrator can ask CIRA to review the material in question.

CIRA is made up of three board members – Jennifer Goldhahn, Ruth Griffie and Chad Mowery – as well as the assistant superintendent and district director of innovation. According to the CIRA bylaws, “at most, three parent advisors who live in the Bermudian Springs School District” will also be added.

During the time for public comment, supporters told the board they felt the changes will make books available in the district classrooms and libraries more appropriate for children, removing problematic texts.

On Tuesday, the board secretary read an emailed statement from one supporter.

“The last two election cycles, the majority of the candidates who have been elected to the school board have promised to provide a more transparent and more open dialogue around the school district’s curriculum, and also to revise the policies and procedures in place that have allowed inappropriate and inapplicable reading material into our classrooms and libraries,” the resident said. “Our family supports the board’s efforts and will continue to support any policy change or improvements to better the lives and learning of the students in the district.”

Many protesters – including students – argued that the updated policy will ban books that contain sexual content but have important information, perspectives and diversity. They argued that the district’s current practice of seeking parental permission before allowing students to read books with mature content is sufficient.

“The board misses the point,” teacher Dana Nelson said. “We’re not trying to carry the banner for sexually explicit books. We’re just trying to carry the banner for books and freedom of choice and access and equity. Many would say this is what makes our country so great. Removing opportunity and access is un-American.”

Another individual applauded the students who spoke both for and against the revisions, though the speaker ultimately was against the revisions and criticized the idea of a committee reviewing borderline books for possible removal.

“If you take away kids’ ability to find something that they need, then you are taking away their right to learn and to explore their lives and the things they have had to deal with,” the speaker said. “And as a parent, I absolutely have 100% trust in our teachers; however, I’m sorry to say I do not trust a small group of people who feel that they know better than everyone else.”

On Monday evening, some board members criticized an opinion piece board member Matthew Nelson had published in Gettysburg Connection on April 4.

In the op-ed, Nelson repeated many of the criticisms and concerns he has voiced in board meetings. Nelson contended that although the policy does not call itself a ban, “restricting and removing books from the district is a book ban.”

During the meeting, Goldhahn identified 12 “lies” in the op-ed.

One example Goldhahn gave was that in his op-ed, Nelson said CIRA could remove books.

“Fact: The CIRA committee does not have the authority to remove anything as a subcommittee of the board,” Goldhahn said. “The CIRA committee only makes recommendations to the whole board so all board members have a vote, which is clearly outlined in the CIRA committee bylaws. Only the board as a whole can enact anything recommended by the CIRA committee.”

In another example, Goldhahn also felt the term “book ban” used in the op-ed misrepresented the goals of the policy.

“Again, this is not a book ban,” Goldhahn said. “Guidelines are not book bans. Policy 109 even clearly states, ‘a student may bring in a book from home.’ If a parent wants their child to read sexually-explicit material, then they can purchase the book instead of the district paying with limited taxpayer funds.”

Griffie, who also serves on CIRA, also disagreed with Nelson that the revisions equate to a book ban since the policy only affects materials presented by the district to students.

“We are not taking away parents’ rights,” Griffie said. “They can go out and buy any book they want their child to read.”

During the time for public comment on Monday, one individual wondered whether Nelson’s op-ed violated the terms of Policy 911 – New Media Relations, questioning whether there would be consequences.

Goldhahn told the individual that it would be a matter for the board to discuss with its solicitor.

In an email to The Gettysburg Connection on Thursday, Nelson responded to the criticism directed at his opinion piece.

“Despite accusations to the contrary, my opinions are protected as free speech, just like it is for all Americans, and the expression of my opinions does not violate any school board policy,” Nelson said. “Furthermore, it is poor form to classify differences of opinion as lies.”

Nelson also stated he plans to follow the “number and types of books being removed” to share the details with the public.

Nelson cast the sole vote against approving the updated policy, which passed 8-1 on Tuesday.

The board will hold a caucus meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, May 13. The regular meeting will follow at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 14.

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Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.

You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.

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Lisa Smith
Lisa Smith
2 months ago

That’s censorship! Shame on you!!

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