Muhlenberg Students Again Raise Alarm on Book-Flagging Policy

February 17, 2014
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Updated-CBLDF-Bone-Email-264x300Last time we checked in with the Muhlenberg School District in Reading, Pennsylvania, some incredibly sharp students had organized a petition in protest of a new policy requiring teachers to flag any books in their classrooms with content that could be considered “mature, sexual, violent or religiously offensive.” Obviously these labels are highly subjective and could conceivably be applied to many books considered classics, and students and teachers were concerned that books bearing the “scarlet letters” might be removed from classroom libraries. Earlier last month, CBLDF also joined with other organizational members of the Kids’ Right to Read Project to protest the policy in a letter to the Muhlenberg School Board.

Last Thursday, petition organizer Caroline Bartley posted an update about where things stand–and the news is not good. Although the student protesters had previously planned to attend a recent school board meeting and comment on the book-flagging policy, they ultimately decided there was no need after receiving assurances from their school’s principal that teachers were simply being asked to complete an “inventory” of books kept in their classrooms, and none would be removed. The principal also said that if teachers had trouble completing the inventory in the allotted time, the deadline could be extended. In the weeks since, however, Bartley reports it’s become clear that she and her fellow students “weren’t told the whole truth,” as she diplomatically phrases it. In practice, many teachers are finding the district’s “inventory” requirements too complex to fulfill in the time they have, and the promised deadline extension has not materialized. Consequently, those teachers have no choice but to box up and remove their entire classroom book collections regardless of content. Bartley’s own English teacher sent an email to district administrators asking for clarification on several points, but never received any response.

Moreover, Bartley points out, the forms that teachers are supposed to fill out seem to be concerned only with the content of the books–not with the number of copies or anything else that would go in an inventory:

Another thing that seemed incredibly fishy was when my friends and I took a look at the actual paperwork for the inventory. There was a column for the name of the book, the author, and the different kinds of “inappropriate themes” that may be found in these books. But you know what we didn’t see? A column for the quantity of the books (individual and overall), and a column that identifies who the books belong to. Funny, right?

And there’s one question that still remains unanswered– what will happen to the books? If a book manages to scrounge up a certain amount of check marks, what’s going to happen to it? They can’t pull together a meeting and discuss whether or not the book is school appropriate because they already granted that right to the teachers. Oh, and if you didn’t know, this is called red-flagging– a form of censorship.

Our principal told us, as the superintendent told the public, that no books were going to leave the shelves, yet dozens of classroom libraries are disappearing out of thin air. And what are they doing to stop this happening? Nothing.

And to make matters worse, my English teacher is being pulled into a meeting on Friday where she needs her union representative to be present. Being a 14-year-old freshman, I don’t know much about the union or what goes on at the meetings that my teachers go to, but I’ve been told that if you need a union representative to be with you to go to a meeting, that’s not a good sign.

In light of these events, Bartley is asking supporters to make some noise and bring attention to the books that have already been lost from classrooms:

We’re in a REAL sticky situation right now. With two major classroom libraries already gone, it’s going to take some serious team effort to get them back. By spreading the word, hopefully, people who can help us will give us all the back-up we need. Also, people need to be made aware of the contrast between what we were told and what we found out. We’re not accusing anyone of lying, but we know for a FACT that we weren’t told the whole truth.

So, if you still care, do everything in your power to build hype about this happening. That means sending this petition to people who you think didn’t sign yet and using every, and I mean EVERY, means of social media possible to get our story out. Seriously. Anything helps. And if you know of an organization or author who would be glad to support us or even a news station, reporter, radio show host, or whatever that can give us a signal boost, tell them about it too.

CBLDF is happy to oblige! We want the students and teachers to know that we are behind them all the way–and we’re fairly certain that if Muhlenberg administrators don’t already regret ever trying to institute this policy, they will soon:

They can’t just take books from right under our noses and think we’re too cowardly and incompetent to take action. Right now, my friends and I are in the planning process of how we’re going to solve this, and once we finalize everything, we WON’T be backing down.

They messed with the wrong ones.

We need your help to keep fighting for the right to read in 2014! Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.