During an Elizabethtown Area school board meeting in early November, a burly man with an army green baseball cap covering his head and a thick, dark brown beard sprouting from underneath his facemask walked up to a microphone to give his public comment.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is, uh, Dan Matthews. Park Street.”

He proceeded to read a line from Jesse Andrews’ New York Times best-selling novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which, he said, his 11-year-old daughter checked out from the middle school library. The line explicitly mentions performing oral sex on a female.

Dramatically holding up the book, he said the line was “absolutely disgusting,” called for the superintendent’s resignation and asked the board, “How can any of you justify this being in this school right here?” He ended his remarks, and several people in the audience attending the meeting clapped in support.

After the public comment session ended, Superintendent Michele Balliet apologized to Matthews, and the book was pulled from the library for review.

Later, district officials began to wonder about Matthews’ appearance at the meeting.

The novel hadn’t been checked out in the middle school in the past year, Elizabethtown Area School District spokesperson Troy Portser said. In fact, the district believes Matthews doesn’t have any children enrolled in the school district. And Dan Matthews of Park Street? That’s believed to be a fake name and address, Portser said.

The man who identified himself as Dan Matthews could not be reached for comment. According to Portser, the man hasn’t been back to a board meeting.

In the past, Matthews had been seen mingling with current Elizabethtown Area school board members Stephen and Danielle Lindemuth. The Lindemuths are conservative activists who attended former President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., which gave rise to a violent insurrection of the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the presidential results, though it’s not clear whether the Lindemuths participated in any violent activity that day.

Neither would discuss Matthews. Stephen Lindemuth could not be reached, and Danielle Lindemuth hung up on a reporter when he identified himself.

A national movement

The concern about the content of school districts’ library books and demands that some of them be banned is not unique to Elizabethtown. It has echoes in school districts across Lancaster County, the region and the nation. 

A Bucks County school district sent a letter in December requiring educators to remove all library books with “content referring to gender identity,” saying that “these topics should always involve conversations between the student and a trusted adult” and that this decision would “ensure that our students are fully supported.” 

The Central York School District, meanwhile, banned educators from teaching a set of books and other media focused on racial justice, concerned that white students may be made to feel guilty about their race — until students protested and got the ban overturned. 

In some states, the issue has become so heated that decisions about specific books and content may be removed from local control.

A San Antonio, Texas, school district ordered 400 books taken off its shelves for a review last month after a Republican state legislator emailed a list of 850 books to superintendents, asking if the books were present in school libraries. And the Georgia state Legislature expects to take up as soon as this month a proposal that would set a uniform statewide process for reviewing material accessible through schools.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom said it saw 60% more book challenges in September 2021 compared with September 2020. And those are just the challenges reported to the ALA, such as those at the Pennridge School District in Bucks County and York County.

The push is led by conservative parents who have publicly opposed mask mandates and the teaching of what some believe to be critical race theory, sparking further political in-fighting at school board meetings, said Stephen Medvic, a government professor and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Some parents are appalled by the content their kids have access to in school – particularly related to sex and race – but others said it’s important to give kids a variety of options when it comes to reading and learning about the world around them.

Meanwhile, educators said parents who are concerned about a book available in school often can find solutions more quickly by working directly with faculty or administration rather than taking it up with the school board, a governing body that’s already embroiled in controversy because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Politics over productivity

“For whatever reason, the pandemic has really pushed people to one camp or another, and we are divided communities at present,” Eastern Lancaster County Superintendent Bob Hollister said. “That’s showing itself at school board meetings, as well.”

At an Elanco school board meeting in October, board member Brian Conroy yelled at Hollister about a graphic novel, “Lighter than My Shadow” by Katie Green, which portrays eating disorders and mental illness as well as sexual abuse. Conroy demanded it be removed – “burned” and “ripped apart” even – from the district’s schools.

“I'm appalled that this is in our schools,” Conroy said. “This is sickening, and makes me question the 321 other books that are on the (school district’s) mature (book) list.”

The book has since been banned in the district.

Hollister told LNP | LancasterOnline it’s the only book that’s been removed. Normally, a parent files a formal complaint and works up the chain of command within the district during the review process, he said. In this case, however, a parent gave the book directly to Conroy, leading to the situation at the board meeting.

While there hasn’t been any other literature banned in Elanco, the district has suspended BrainPOP, a teacher resource that features animated educational videos for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents had complained about transgender rights and Black Lives Matter being mentioned on the website. Hollister said he hopes to return BrainPOP to teachers in January.

Hollister, who is retiring Jan. 25, said it’s frustrating that a few critical residents at board meetings forced the district to shut down the program, calling it “overkill.” Politics, he said, has gotten in the way of productivity in schools.

‘They can’t do anything to stop it’

Politics at school board meetings is nothing new, but the Trump era and the pandemic has created the “perfect storm,” according to Medvic of Franklin & Marshall College.

Former President Donald Trump’s combative style has given license to people who might feel more emboldened to speak out against something they don’t agree with, Medvic said. During the pandemic, he added, parents have become more concerned with what, and how, their kids are being taught.

Knowledge is always changing, Medvic said. And that’s at odds with those in the conservative movement who wish to maintain the status quo and preserve traditional, often Christian, ideals, he said. That has created more fear and sensitivity among that group, he said.

“They feel like the culture around them is changing so rapidly,” Medvic said, “and they can’t do anything to stop it.”

Liberals, meanwhile, welcome this change and are actively fighting the push to ban books while encouraging free thinking and self-expression, Medvic said.

Conservatives’ struggle for control is somewhat hypocritical, he said, because banning books is in many ways at odds with the nation’s fundamental right to free speech and the conservative fight to end so-called cancel culture.

Leading the charge against this societal change, Medvic said, are conservative groups like No Left Turn in Education.

‘It’s everywhere’

Lois Kaneshiki of Enola is a regional representative of No Left Turn in Education. To her, critics are out to make conservative parents look as if they are “backwards reactionaries.” People, she said, should be disgusted with some of the content students are exposed to in public schools, comparing it to the pornographic magazine Hustler.

She blames the “progressive left” and public schools for the “hypersexualization” of children and “indoctrinating” students. She said teaching topics like equity and social justice are akin to Marxism and Communism. Students, even in high school, are not ready to discuss and form opinions on complex topics like police brutality or LGBT lifestyles, she said.

“They have their whole lives to formulate opinions,” Kaneshiki said, “but you only have a limited amount of time in school. You have to use it wisely.”

Asked about free speech, she said students should be able to express themselves, but that doesn’t mean educators have free reign to use whatever they want in the classroom, adding that schools have policies, like dress codes, that already limit student expression.

As for why she thinks offensive material is so widespread, Kaneshiki said, “I know it’s everywhere.” She hears from parents regularly, she said.

She said she recently heard from parents in Mechanicsburg who took issue with Ruth Bare’s “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” because it includes a “disgusting” sex scene, and Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” though she couldn’t remember why.

“The Hate U Give,” which explores racism and police brutality through the eyes of a 16-year-old Black girl, is among the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Others include “George” by Alex Gino, “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

With this in mind, how do schools select books to include in their libraries and English classes?

According to Laura Ward, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and librarian at Fox Chapel Area High School in Pittsburgh, most school districts follow a process through which books are selected by a team of educators based on the school’s curriculum and state standards. With help from national resources like the School Library Journal and Junior Library Guild, the team considers reviews and recommendations when curating a selection, she said.

“It’s not just, ‘The cover’s pretty,’” Ward said. “There’s a lot of thought and time invested in choosing the right material for students.”

When a book is challenged, usually it’s because of one sentence or one page taken out of context, she said. Parents, she said, typically don’t read the whole work before citing a concern.

Ward said a supportive team of administrators and a comprehensive review process can prevent high-quality books from being pulled from the shelves.

“I always go back to the students’ right to read,” she said. “It’s their right to read what they want.”

Back in Elizabethtown, Kristy Moore, a parent and community activist as well as a middle school English teacher in Lancaster County, said parents should trust the expertise of librarians and teachers rather than taking away reading and learning opportunities for kids.

“Rather than speaking to their own children … they’re trying to make these decisions for all parents,” she said of parents seeking to ban books. “That’s not right.”

Parents should be alarmed, she said, especially when people are potentially giving fake names and fabricated stories at school board meetings – like what appears to have happened in her home district.

“It’s really disturbing that that’s where we are right now,” Moore said.

The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.

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