A motion to remove two books from future summer reading lists at Emmaus High School never got off the ground at Monday night’s East Penn School Board meeting.
Because an unidentified “member of the community” submitted a written “inquiry” challenging the books just before the school board meeting began, eight board members voted to follow the board’s established policy for handling such complaints.
The board will take no action on the books until a committee reviews that challenge and makes a recommendation to the board, which could happen in just a couple of weeks.
Board member Julian Stolz was the only board member who wanted to immediately proceed with his motion to remove Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and Curtis Sittenfield’s “Prep” from the school’s optional reading list.
Stolz argued what he was not proposing censorship, but common sense: “That a government body should not be recommending explicit sexual content to minors -- to 14, 15 and 16-year-old students.”
The board did not debate whether the two books should be removed. It only voted on whether Stolz’s motion should even be considered.
Board president Charles Ballard recommended the board take no action on the books until after it follows its own policy that has been in place for more than 20 years -- have an investigation and get facts “providing us with a rational basis for taking any action.” He even maintained failing to follow its own policy could subject the board to lawsuits.
“As the chair of this group, under ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ I am dismissing Mr. Stolz’s motion as improper until the requirements of Policy 109 have been met,’ said Ballard. “The motion is null and void and will not be discussed.” Stolz appealed Ballard’s decision, which led to the 8-1 vote supporting Ballard’s position.
Under School Board Policy 109, a committee will be formed to review the books and make a written recommendation to the school board, which it can accept or reject.
That committee will be chaired by an assistant superintendent and include a high school supervisor and/or teacher, a librarian, a building administrator, a board member and two members of the public.
East Penn Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger said anyone interested in serving on the committee and willing to read the books should call his office Tuesday.
Seidenberger said the committee may complete its work in just a week or two.
Said board vice president Alan Earnshaw: “I hope we’ll have a balanced treatise from the committee that gives us a nuanced view instead of sound bites. I’m looking forward to hearing from people who have read the works and are willing to weigh it in its entirety, instead of from a single-page excerpt.”
Stolz may have a chance to revive his motion after the board receives that committee report.
After the board meeting, Stolz was asked if he had any comment about the board’s action. His response was “what else is new?”
His motion stemmed from the Sept. 10 school board meeting, where two Emmaus residents complained about “Prep” and “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” At that meeting, resident Paula Wittman argued the books are pornography and demanded a public explanation from the school district about how they got on the reading list. She asked if they would be removed.
“If the true purpose was to protect students from unsuitable material, why make the complaint publicly, which advertises the very material that supposedly is to be kept from sensitive minds?” asked Ballard Monday. “It’s my understanding that the books complained about are flying off the shelves at both bookstores and libraries. As anyone who has a teenager knows, telling them what they should not do is akin to waving a red flag in front of a charging bull.”
Long before the board’s vote, 11 people stood to speak about the books. Two adults stunned some in the audience by reading sexually explicit passages from books, including one not at issue in East Penn. And two high school seniors spoke in support of both the summer reading list and the English teachers who developed it.
Jeff Lotte, who also objected to the books on Sept. 10, told the board he never recommended banning books. “This thing has been blown out of proportion.” He wants to know who approved the books and if they will be reviewed to determine whether they are appropriate for 13- and 14-year-old children.
Former board member Terry Richwine urged the board to vote against “the book banning motion. These books are not pornography.”
Said Richwine: “I believe this entire issue is a manufactured crisis, orchestrated by a group dedicated to tearing down East Penn School District and giving it a back eye.”
Emmaus High School seniors Neil Ren and Isiah Zukowski have an online petition with 125 signatures to keep the books on the summer reading list.
Said Ren: “It is every student’s right to read what they wish. We want to be treated like young adults. We don’t want to be sheltered.”
Noting the books were recommended by high school English teachers, Zukowski said: “The amount of trust and respect I have for them is impossible to quantify.” He also said the “pornographic” material cited by the objectors “pales in comparison to all that is available ad regularly accessed on the Internet.”
Nicole Bassett, whose daughter is a freshman at Emmaus High, was “thrilled” to see “Prep” on the summer reading list. Bassett said it is irresponsible to label that book as porn. She warned her daughter some parts might make her uncomfortable because they deal with sexual situations, “but the context of these passages is extremely important. This is my job as a parent, to guide my children. It is not the role of the school to dictate what is appropriate for my child.”
With no warning, Garrett Rhoads of Allentown stood at the podium and read a passage about oral sex in “Prep.” He called the book a “reprehensible piece of literary trash.” Noting “Prep” was on a list for children entering 9th grade, he called on the board to “stop promoting sexually explicit material to 13- and 14-year-old children.”