In early September 2021, before most of the country knew what Moms for Liberty or No Left Turn were — both of which were operating — Central York High School in Pennsylvania was leading the way in book bans. But they weren’t just being leaders in restricting the First Amendment Rights of students. Students themselves were becoming leaders in the charge against book bans, beginning a protest against the removal of books from the school. The protest ended when, finally, the district made concessions.
The students who coordinated the protest were all part of the school’s Panther Anti-Racist Union (PARU), a group founded in 2021 to engage in anti-racist actions in the school and community. PARU’s foundation is on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Book bans were not the only focus of PARU, though now in 2023, PARU is stepping up again, protesting another wave of book bans in their district. Given the books being banned specifically target those with race, gender, and sexuality themes, it is no surprise they’re engaged. They’ve been protesting for over two weeks as of this writing, and they plan to not only continue through the rest of the school year but will continue into the new one if the books being banned at Central York are not overturned.
“I would say that Central York is in many ways a microcosm of our country as a whole. We have a very diverse suburban population as we sit on the border of the City of York and get many families moving from Baltimore, DC and NYC,” explained Ben Hodge, one of the co-leaders of PARU. “Our district is 60% White and 40% BIPOC and we have a very diverse community. York County is notoriously a conservative Republican area but like many counties in PA and across the country, has become more ‘purple’ over the last few election cycles. Unfortunately, our district was one of the first in the recent book ban trends due to the extreme right partisanship that came after 2020.”
Some of the teens protesting now are the same teens who protested at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. Still others have graduated, but have come back to support the current protesters.
Rather than offer an in-depth look at the group and their members, it feels more appropriate to hand over this space to the teen protesters themselves. Find below their words on the impact of book bans at Central York, the false premise of “parental rights,” and what they hope both their peers and adults across the country understand: this isn’t about the books. It’s about the erasure and eradication of people of color and queer people.
Because the students are minors, I’ve elected to use just the first initial of their names in quote attribution and in cases where students just included an age, selected a letter to represent their names. I want to also extend a big thank you to Central York faculty members and PARU sponsors Ben Hodge and Patricia Jackson for coordinating. All photos are courtesy of Hodge and used with permission.
“[S]tanding out there together in solidarity and peacefully protesting helps take some of the sting away from the book bans themselves. It feels like we are not helpless. We all have a voice. We realize that we are not alone and that it is important to stand together and speak up against something that is wrong,” explained Hodge. “One of my favorite moments from this recent round of protests is seeing these students lock arms on their own initiative and smile with their heads held high as the walk in together at 7:30. There is such a profound sense of camaraderie and solidarity that is beautiful to see.”
If you have not been listening to the adults talking about the impact of book bans, perhaps the words of teens will make the difference for you and light the fire you need to show up to board meetings, to vote in local elections, and to push back against the extremism that is in your own backyard. Whether you want to believe it or not, it’s local to you, too.
What made you decide to protest book bans at Central York? What caught your attention and made to decide to do something?
“I wanted to protest because they need to open their eyes. What caught my attention was that this has already happening last year, yet didn’t learn their lesson. Not only that, but this time they did it in secret. And kept it for a secret for months.” –N, 14.
“I decided to protest the book bans at my school because it didn’t make sense to me. How did they get there in the first place then? Why now all of a sudden are they a problem? Literature is how we connect with ourselves, and others. The stories literature holds is so powerful it can hold years of knowledge. That shouldn’t be hidden or banned from us.” – Z, 18
“I have a personal connection to books. English was not my first language, so when I finally learned how to read, it felt like one of my biggest accomplishments. I soon found haven in books and it transformed me, mentally and emotionally. Being an Asian American in a predominantly white community has always been a struggle for me, but when the book ban was enforced last year, it changed something in me and made me realize that I cannot continue to hold my tongue and silence myself from speaking out about my opinions. For so long, I let people make fun of my culture and make inappropriate comments and jokes about my ethnicity. The book ban awoke something in me, it was like I finally realized that I have a voice too. After the news sources started publishing stories on the book bans last year, it really caught my attention and I knew that I had to try and take a leap forward, to do something I would be proud of. So, I joined PARU, and it has been one of the best decisions I think I have ever made in my life.” – A, 16
“I felt as though the banning was unjust. The justification for these books being removed wasn’t acceptable and I wanted to make sure people knew that it was this way. We needed to be heard.” –T, 17
“I decided to protest the book bans because it was wrong. I do not think any book should be banned. Every story is a story and it deserves to be read. On top of that, the district went the wrong way about doing it.” –T, 16
“I believe no books should be banned, especially at a high school level where it is imperative that students read a variety of texts; even those that are challenging. When I heard that they banned these books under policy designed to evaluate curriculum material, and not independent reading, I was shocked. They didn’t have the right, especially under the policy they wrote. It was important to protest for our education, the voices of the authors, and for effectiveness of our school system.” – C, 16
“Growing up not sheltered from the greatness of diversity and by people who support equality and equity for all helped me to acknowledge when there are injustices and when I heard there was another book ban I knew it was time to protest again as we did last fall.” –M, 16
“I decided to protest the major book ban that Central York placed on over 300+ BIPOC books. This caught my attention because it was hard for me to believe that all the 300+ books in this ban were ‘bad’ for students to read. The books ban highlighted diversity and inclusion, in books like Skin Like Mine by LaTashia M. Perry and Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin.” – C, 18
Why Central York? What is making your community such a popular place for book banning? This isn’t your first time protesting banned books. How come adults aren’t listening to students?
“I believe that it is Central’s students, specifically the members of PARU that are making this issue at Central York so well-known, because it is not just CYSD’s admin and board that are banning books. Book bans happen globally, but it is our students who are taking on the responsibility of standing up against it and that is really amazing.” – M, 16
“I think the adults aren’t listening to the students because they don’t believe we are capable of thinking for ourselves. They think we are being ‘indoctrinated’ and are being told what to say and think by our teachers. They don’t think we are capable of handling more challenging material, and that’s upsetting. They see us as ‘just kids,’ but our voices matter, especially when they are voting on OUR education.” – C, 16
“The answer is in the question. They won’t listen because we’re students. They think that we are a group of bored teenagers looking to start problems. That’s not the case at all. We’re simply fighting for what we think is right.” – T, 16
“The lack of communication between the leaders and our students is the main issue. Adults can’t understand if they don’t listen. We are a part of the district as well.” – T, 17
“I think the reason why our community has been in the center of book banning is because the individuals that grew up in a predominantly white society have grown desensitized to any actions and comments that people make that can be considered racist, homophobic, or just extremely inappropriate whether it was a joke or not. I say this because there was a point where I had been desensitized to it and let it slide. I can also see it among many other individuals who have been desensitized to this or may simply feel that their voice does not affect school policy that much. The lack of diverse voices, though PARU has made sure this gap is now filled, has played a large part in book banning. Adults often don’t listen to students because they believe there is a lack of understanding or maturity from the learners. However, this is not always true, and I also feel that they struggle to put themselves in the shoes of all students, especially when one cannot imagine the situations and events that go on in a life of a person of color like me.” – A, 16
“I attend Central and I have since kindergarten. I grew up here. The adults aren’t listening to us because they don’t think that we are capable of making decisions on our own. They don’t think we’re developed enough to read this content. They generalize us as children, even though we are of the minimum ages of 15 and the maximum ages of 18.” – Z, 18
“Adults usually don’t listen to student because ‘we don’t know what we’re talking about.’ We do know what we are talking about. We know the difference between right and wrong and this is wrong. We are not stupid. They have a pretty big reputation, good and bad (like this). They want to protect their reputation by masking the problems. They don’t want to look bad.” –N, 14
When did you first hear about book bans in your school district? What did you think about it when you heard?
“I first heard about the book ban in March, yet the book ban happened in September and kept it a secret. The first thing I thought in that matter was, ‘there’s no way this is happening AGAIN.’ I was alarmed, but I wasn’t surprised.” – N, 14
“I heard about them during my sophomore year, which was last year. When I heard about it, I was absolutely shocked. Book banning, to me, felt like something that only came out of history textbooks; they were a part of the past, not the present. It felt unreal to know that the voices of people of color were being silenced and it made me feel like my voice was being silenced as well.” – A, 16
“When I heard about the recent ban it came out through social media. It was revealed to be more private. I felt as though the books weren’t even disclosed to us this time because our leaders didn’t want any backlash.” – T, 17
“I heard about the book ban in March, I believe. I wasn’t in the district when it happened in the past, but I had heard about it. When I heard about this one I was confused. I was wondering, ‘why would they do this again?’ I was also upset. It happened months prior but it was kept a secret. I was upset that they chose to hide it because it showed that they knew it was wrong. If it wasn’t, they would’ve been public about it.” – T, 16
“I heard about the first book banning in 2020 when our school banned over 200 books that specifically featured minorities and marginalized communities. I was upset that they were taking away powerful voices from students, and also removing representation from our library. Our school prided itself on diversity, but it seemed to feel quite the opposite when the first ban was set.” – C, 17
“I heard about the book bans initially last year and to be honest, I was just in pure shock. When it happened again, I wasn’t as surprised but more so disappointed.” – M, 16
“When I first heard about book banning in Central, I was a senior in the district. I felt let down by the district because the district promoted itself on diversity and inclusion, yet the books banned WERE about diversity and inclusion.” – C, 18
How long have you been protesting? How long do you plan to protest?
“I was a part of last year’s protest and I am also protesting for the current book ban. I plan to protest for as long as I need to, that is until the policy is changed and the books are put back in the libraries. If it means protesting into the next school year, I am willing to do that.” – A, 16
“We’ve been talking at board meetings and expressing our opinions since we found out. We began the walk-ins on Friday, May 5th. We plan on continuing until the books are back and the policy is fixed. We’re willing to go until the end of the school year. And whether the location is changed or we do something other than walk-ins, we’ll continue over the summer too. We aren’t just going to stop once school ends because we’re so passionate about this.” – T, 16
What experiences have helped you feel like your protest against banned books matters?
“What helped me feel like our protest matters is because people are acknowledging what is happening are understanding that what’s happening is wrong.” – N, 14
“All of us are there for a reason, because we care. The encouragement we give each other to speak up, changes the environment. We are strong in numbers, and the more we protest the more we grow.” – Z, 18
“When Bernice King stepped up to support PARU and people started gathering together at arranged events, it felt like our voices were being heard. After the book ban was overturned last year, I realized that our voices do matter, and it felt beyond amazing.
One time, I spoke at a board meeting and it was my 2nd time, but it is still extremely unnerving. A lot of people were there to support me present a speech that I wrote in 10 minutes. The next day, I went into my AP Lang class and my teacher told me how grateful she was that I spoke about the book ban. In that moment, I realized how my voice not only represents my own feelings, but also the feelings of others.” –C, 16
“Change is being made. When you realize people have heard your calls and are willing to fight with you. It makes it all feel worth it in the end.” – T, 17
“The support we’ve gotten from the community is insane. From people sharing kind words on our social medias to community members showing up to the board meetings and showing their support to us. It helps us feel like some people are listening, even if the right ones aren’t. Also, since our walk-ins began, the group gets bigger every day which makes us feel seen.” – T, 16
“It’s been encouraging to see people who smile, wave, or cheer on the protests, even if they can’t participate themselves. We have a lot more allies in the community than we think we do, and it’s encouraging to see that come through in small ways.” – C, 17
“Just the overall community of PARU. Everyone in PARU is so accepting and even at 7 in the morning we can have fun and stand for what we all believe in. I am not a morning person, but I can’t help but be happy when I am standing with such phenomenal people.” – M, 16
What has been the hardest part about protesting? How do you keep yourself motivated?
“The hardest part about protesting has to be that the people behind the book ban won’t ever actually pay attention, that they’ll just continue to dismiss us. A student in the club PARU that I’m in, asked our teacher Mr. Hodge asking if we’ll ever give up at some point. He responded with this, ‘Did your ancestors give up? They had every right to, but did they?’ That’s what keeps me motivated.” –N, 14
“The hardest part about protesting is consistency. We have to be at the school at 7 am, even though a lot of us are used to arriving at around 7:30 am. What keeps me motivated personally is the support we get from our fellow students who show up as well.” – Z, 18
“Protesting is difficult in that people may make fun or joke about the protests. People may start to distance themselves from you because of it. However, I keep myself motivated by staying close to the PARU members as I know they will always be there to support me.” – A, 16
“Getting up every morning and not really seeing immediate results is petty demoralizing. But the ripples that are created by our protests eventually make it all worth it in the end.” – T, 17
“The hardest part about this protest is the frustration. It sometimes feels so defeating to be talking and saying the same things over and over and not being listened to. I keep myself motivated by having a focus point, I want to say. We started this because of how we felt about the ban and because we want justice. That’s my focus point at least. I know that we are moving forward so we can’t stop now.” – T, 16
“The hardest part can be the other students. Not all students are as open to the protest, and their facial expressions and rude gestures can be discouraging. However, I know that I am standing up for what I think is right. I relish in the fact that I am fighting for something meaningful, and that has given me the courage to come out every morning.” – C, 17
“The hardest part is seeing people who don’t understand or care to understand pass us by. I keep myself motivated by looking around and seeing everyone else with their signs and focusing on what we do have and how many people do understand.” –M, 16
“The hardest part about protesting is waiting for change. When protesting last year, the district sent out an email during our protesting confirming their decision to remove the books. I kept motivated by thinking about how hopefully the ban would be reversed one day. I hoped that even if I didn’t see the reversal of the while a student, I hoped that future students who look like me would.” – C, 16
Have your teachers and staff been supportive of your actions?
“Yes, when I protested last school year numerous staff, community members and students supported myself and numerous students and staff peacefully protesting against the book ban.” – C, 16
“Yes, lots of teachers and staff are supportive but most are indifferent. Mr. Hodge and Mrs. Jackson have definitely done an amazing job as well as they are extremely supportive and do everything they can to make sure the protests are powerful and peaceful.” – M, 16
“Yes! Mr Hodge and Mrs Jackson have been very encouraging. Every morning before the protest they remind us that our voices matter.” – C, 17
“Yes, so many teachers have been supportive. One of my math teachers was telling me about how him and his wife did not agree with the book bans. Many adults in the building congratulate us and let us know that they’re proud of us.” – T, 16
“All of the teachers I have talked about this issue with have supported my actions. Regardless of wether or not they agree with book bans, they all support our right to protest and are proud that we are passionate about literature.” – Z, 18
“Actually yes they have, matter of fact my teacher is taking action as well. Along with other teachers who I love dearly. One of my teachers saw me in the articles talking about this matter and she came to me telling me that I’m doing big things and that she’s proud. She lets me know that she is proud of me pretty frequently.” – N, 14
If you could tell the book banners in your community one thing, what would it be?
“One thing I’d say that without students there is no school. I’d say more but that’s my one thing for now :)” – N, 14
“Why do you get to decide what I can and can not read?” – Z, 18
“You encourage us to learn, to grow and become individuals filled with wisdom and knowledge. You encourage us to be courageous and to be true to ourselves. Yet, you try to take away our voices when we try to stand up for ourselves and when we want to read the books that you’ve banned. You say our school values diversity but does it really?” – C, 16
“Books don’t endanger lives. They save them.” – T, 17
“Books are education. You cannot ban education and expect us to be educated. If you were to pick up any of the banned books and read if beginning to end, you’d change your mind. Ignorance will keep us from moving forward.” – T, 16
“Do not dismiss us or diminish our intelligence; we are capable of free thinking and we deserve literary independence.” – C, 16
“The stories in the books you are banning may not be your story, and you may not like the story, but it is someone’s story, and you cannot take it from them or shield it from everyone else.” – M, 16
“I wish they’d understand growth within a person comes through constructive conversation and learning. How can we learn if we stay stagnant in comfort and do not have a safe space to learn and, most importantly, to read.” – C, 16
What is one thing you’d like every adult in America to know about what is happening in your school and other schools across the U.S.?
“I want to make it clear that Central York High School is flawed. Bad things happen too. I like being a part of this school but work has to be done.” – N, 14
“We are capable of making decisions for ourselves.” – Z, 18
Book banning isn’t simply taking away knowledge, it is ripping away the ideas that the Constitution our American government rests on. Book banning rips away the First Amendment, the freedom of speech. Authors of color use their First Amendment to write books on their personal experiences, but then they have their voices silenced.
There are more important things to regulate, to fight for. Books are not deadly. They are anything but deadly. They give life: they let people know they’re not alone, they offer comfort. Just like the trees they are made from, books breathe life into the world.” –A, 16
“When books are banned kids and parents rights are violated. Books are education and should be free for anyone to read.” – T, 17
“Resources are being taken from kids. When books are taken away, voices are too. Some books are safe places for students and can help them find things they relate to and it needs to stop. You may think ‘it’s just a book or two, it’s not that serious’ but two books turn to three, then four, and then escalates from there.” – T, 16
“Once these book bannings start, they do not stop. They will always find a way to ban more and more books. If you stop them, they will try again, even if that means in silence. Remain vigilant and fight for what you believe in.” – C, 16
“Books are being banned, sometimes with wrongful policies, and the students are not happy about it.” – M, 17
What do you think is at stake when books are banned in schools and libraries?
“I believe the right for students to read and think for themselves is at stake by overbearing school boards and parents trying to dictate what students can learn. We need to trust teachers, librarians, and professionals to help students and readers pick books at their reading and maturity level. Books about diversity and marginalized groups are not ‘bad’ or ‘too intense’ they are books that represent the parts and people of America these book bans are trying to dismiss.” – C, 18
“When books are banned, kids are sheltered, and when kids are sheltered they are oblivious to problems and scenarios they are bound to face in the real world.” – M, 16
“Books are powerful tools. They can help a person heal, foster growth, provide representation, educate, and inspire. Taking away books limits the tools students have to engage in the world.” – C, 17
“Students are at stake. We learn less, we lose resources, we lose the ability to relate situations and create connections to someone else.” – T, 16
“The chance to learn is at stake. We have to understand that taking away books doesn’t protect anyone. It just prevents people from understanding and learning.” – T, 17
“More books being banned, less diverse cultures being recognized, more regulation on musicals, plays, other areas of expression within our school.” – A, 16
“Stories. Experiences. Connection.” – Z, 18
“The voice of the authors. The voice of everyone who even has a different opinion about it. Just everyone’s voices.” – N, 14
Why do you believe in the freedom to read?
“I believe in the the freedom to read because it gives you different perspectives. You choose what perspective and what path of having an idea of someone else experiences are like. Freedom in reading gives growth and expresses to you different ideas.” – N, 14
“From where we’ve come from in history, having nearly everyone be literate is such a gift. Everyone can read what they want when they want, there’s always something out there for people. If you take that away, you take away people’s stories. You take away people’s experiences. You take away people’s voices.” – Z, 18
“Reading has played such a crucial role in my life. I still remember the summers I dedicated specifically for reading. I spent my summers holed up in the library reading chapter books back to back. Every week I would read 7-10 books and would come back eager for more. If a young learner wants to read and expand their mind, then I think they should be able to do so. If I didn’t read all those books back then, I don’t think I would be as mature and knowledgeable as I am now.” – A, 16
“Reading is a tool and an experience. It is apart of the human experience. That is why it is taught. To take away this freedom is to take away apart of the human experience.” – T, 17
“I believe in it because it’s educational. To read is to learn and we really need to evaluate ourselves if we’re at the point where we’re taking learnings resources for
high school children.” – T, 16
“I believe in the freedom to read because no one besides me or my parents should have a day in the novels I am reading and sheltering kids from everything will only hurt them after they graduate.” – M, 16
“I believe in our First Amendment right to the freedom of speech and expression. Books are a written form of that.” – C, 18
“What has banning books taught us in past. Nothing good. All of this is included in the First Amendment right. Honestly just do better.” – N, 14
“Overturning book bans is a hard battle to fight. I often feel like I have to prove my worth to the school board, to let them know that my opinion and voice matters because I feel like my voice is not heard sometimes. I have told them that I have won prestigious writing awards from Harvard and placed top 5% of my class every year, yet I feel like they ignore me. However, I’ve realized how important consistency is. Consistently speaking to them, being personal to them about the impact book banning has on me is what I hope will change things.” – A, 16
“The people we oppose on these issues can be frustrating. They haven’t listened to us, nor have they tried to understand us. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still do what is right. I am ALWAYS willing to talk with others and figure out solutions to issues. The banners of our books have attempted to talk to us but never to listen. And that is where we must take action.” – T, 17
“We have rights. We don’t lose them once we step foot in the high school building. People need to be mindful of that. Adults also need to learn to listen to us. We’re the ones attending the school, using the materials, and our voices need to be listened to. Our ideas need to be considered. And we need to stop banning books.” – T, 16
“This generation is influential and will not stand idly by when there’s injustice. The books may not be back yet, but we will be back, everyday, until they are back on the shelves where they belong.” – M, 16
“I understand parents/guardians and school districts believe that certain books should not be read by their students. To that, I say that decision should be made by the student and/or the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s). To help a system where parents can fill out forms of the books they do not want students to read should be available that way that students will not read the books, however banning books does not stop people from reading a book; it only makes people want to read the book to see why it is banned.” – C, 18