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2 students who helped reverse their high school's book ban

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we're going to go to York County, Penn., where there was a debate over an issue that's been flaring up around the country - a fight over what K-12 students should be taught. In some places, people have locked in on critical race theory, something that isn't taught in K-12 schools. In others, it's challenging books taught in advanced courses. In other places, the target even includes books for early readers about civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But this fight didn't end the way they so often have, with ugly public outbursts or books just quietly disappearing from the curricula. This ended differently, and that's because of the people we rarely hear from - the students. We're going to talk with two of them in a minute. But first, some background.

In November of last year, the Central York School District in Pennsylvania handed down a ban on teaching certain materials. Teachers and librarians received a list of books, articles and films that were banned from classrooms. The list included bestsellers like Ibram Kendi's "How To Be An Antiracist" to coloring books and children's books about history, including "I Am Rosa Parks."

The book ban in York County got the attention of several students at Central York High School, in particular members of the school's anti-racist student group. They say the list targeted works by so-called BIPOC authors - Black, Indigenous and people of color - and they began to protest in school and outside of school board meetings. Then in late September, the school board reversed the ban, at least for now.

Olivia Pituch and Christina Ellis are both seniors at Central York High School, and they were active in protesting the book ban, and they are both with us now. Thank you both so much for speaking with me.

OLIVIA PITUCH: Thank you for having us.

CHRISTINA ELLIS: Thank you for having us. We appreciate it.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to ask, how did each of you hear about this to begin with? How did this whole question of these materials being taken out of the curriculum - how did it come to you? Maybe, Christina, do you want to start?

ELLIS: I was aware by this book ban by Edha, who is our president at PARU, the Panther Anti-Racist Union at our high school. She had texted me, and she's like, you cannot not believe what just happened. And we found out - she found out through a article from our local paper called the York Dispatch. And then she created a group chat with myself, Olivia and a few others, including our adviser, to have a game plan of what we want to do about this because this was something that, you know, we haven't really seen before. And we decided that we're going to peacefully protest outside of our high school in the morning before class started. And we had signs like Black Lives Matter, education belongs in diversity, all these signs to make our voices heard.

MARTIN: Olivia, what about you? Why did you think this was important?

PITUCH: When we saw this ban, we saw books that would help with self-love, inclusion, representation, helping to educate others and normalize diversity. So we really, really - we needed to get our message out there so people understood the importance of these books. There's books like "I'm Enough," "Not Quite Snow White," "Hidden Figures," "Pink Is For Boys" - all of these books that would only help teaching kids how to love themselves and embrace themselves. And it really hurt to see that the school district was just yanking these books, these necessary resources away from their students, especially in the world that we are living in today.

MARTIN: So "Hidden Figures" - that's a book about three women who helped, you know, the U.S. get to space. That's really...

PITUCH: Yes.

MARTIN: Did you ever get an explanation - like maybe, Christina, maybe you want to take this one? Did the school administrators ever give a reason why they were removing some of these books from the curriculum? I mean, things like - like I say, "Hidden Figures" is about three women, basically math geniuses, who helped the United States' space program. I mean, so was there ever any explanation of why they felt these materials shouldn't be taught?

ELLIS: So a week after we started protesting, the school board sort of reinforced their decision by sending out an email, basically saying that a lot of parents had concerns about the books that were on the list. But as you said, books like "Hidden Figures" and "Rosa Parks," you know, they're well-known things. And there's nothing controversial about, you know, Black women in science.

MARTIN: Olivia, I don't know if you got - I hope you don't mind my pointing this out. But Christina is African American. Olivia, you're white, correct?

PITUCH: Yes.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding that part of the motivation here - this is - I'm quoting from one of the articles written about this, where one of the parents, a white parent, was interviewed. He was at one of the school board meetings, and he said that I don't want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she's white. And that seems to be a common theme that we hear around the country when people are objecting to some of these books. A lot of the focus is parents saying, I don't want my kid feeling guilty because they're white. So, Olivia, do you mind taking that on?

PITUCH: My response to that is it should make you feel uncomfortable. We're talking about people being killed. You shouldn't be sitting there smiling, learning about all these things that happened. So we should be learning about these things. We should be learning about this history of America because it's what happened, and we need to learn from this history. So I just think that it's kind of a irrelevant argument to use against learning about true history.

MARTIN: Christina, what about you? How do you respond to that? How does this argument land with you?

ELLIS: Well, from my personal experience, whenever we have the slavery unit in our social studies classes, some of the students may have, like, an awkward look towards me, kind of feel as though like, should I say something? Should I do something? I can kind of see a bit of tension. But as a Black student who sits in these class, it's also uncomfortable for me, but it's the truth. Life is not going to be sunshine and rainbows all the time. There are some hard-pressing facts. And slavery and injustice is one of those hard fact.

It is very hard as an African American student to sit in class and, you know, hear that, yes, my ancestors - and, you know, when I have - our family sits down for discussions about, you know, our family history, like, yes, your great uncle, you know, such and such was in Mississippi, and he was lynched. That's hard to hear, but I don't hide away from it. We are better with education. We are better with knowledge.

MARTIN: What if the issue here is - I just want to read from the president of the school board. Jane Johnson read a statement that said that while the board recognized the importance of diversity, it was concerned about materials that may, quote, "lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content," unquote. I'll ask each of you this. Olivia - and then, Christina, I'll ask you this - do you think in a way that they're selling you short, they're saying you can't handle this?

PITUCH: One hundred percent. I mean, they're taking away important parts of history. I mean, I've read "Macbeth" in school. That book is filled with violence. And as an LGBTQ+ member, I have realized the importance of representation. Whenever I read that one book or see that one movie that has someone like me, the excitement that I feel is - it's uncomparable to anything else. We want to see ourselves reflected in our school libraries, in our education. We want to see people that look like us or think like us or feel like us because we are constantly being told that we don't have a place in the world. So that representation is crucial.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Christine, I'm going to throw you a curveball here. Do you have any sympathy for these parents who think they're doing the right thing?

ELLIS: I do, because I can see where they're coming from. This is not an easy topic. It's not learning your ABCs and learning how to count. This is hard stuff to deal with. So I do have some sympathy. I can understand why they necessarily don't want to have their kids, you know, learn about, you know, slavery and things of that nature because it's not easy. But it happened. And if you're going to, you know, shun them from that, you're selling them short.

MARTIN: Olivia, what about you? Do you have any sympathy for these folks?

PITUCH: I do realize that, like Christina said, this is harder stuff, so they want to shield them. But that's not so much of an excuse because they are going to have to learn it. This is something that happened in the world. This isn't something that they can just never learn about ever again. It's not something that they just don't have to know. So while I do have sympathy, I do not think that the parents are doing the right thing for their kids.

MARTIN: That is Olivia Pituch and Christina Ellis. They are seniors at Central York High School. And we've been talking with them about their protests opposing their school district's ban on certain anti-racism materials or materials involving Black and Latino and other BIPOC authors. After their protest, the ban was temporarily lifted by the school board in September, and they say they're awaiting further review. Olivia Pituch, Christina Ellis, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck with whatever comes next.

PITUCH: Thank you so much.

ELLIS: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.