Four books in the Girls Who Code book series, slim middle-grade novels infused with lessons about life and programming, were banned in a Pennsylvania school district, according to reports earlier this week from Business Insider, Newsweek, The Guardian, and others. The articles circulated widely online, all citing a September 19 report from PEN America, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to freedom of literary expression that maintains a list of books banned in different schools across the country.
The founder of the Girls Who Code organization, Reshma Saujani, spoke out against the ban in vehement terms: “This is about controlling women and it starts with controlling our girls,” she told Insider. Finding out the news “felt very much like a direct attack on the movement we’ve been building to get girls coding,” she added. She tweeted, “To be honest, I am so angry I cannot breathe.”
Yet, in response to those news stories, the southeastern Pennsylvania school district at the center of the controversy, Central York, aggressively denied that it had ever banned the Girls Who Code books. In a statement that directly linked to Insider’s interview with Saujani, the district wrote, “The information published in this article is categorically false. This book series has not been banned, and they remain available in our libraries.”
So what, exactly, did happen? To get the full story, Gizmodo spoke with the school district’s communications director, Saujani of Girls Who Code, PEN America, a teacher in Central York School District, and a community advocate in York, PA. Here are the basics of what we determined:
- Were the Girls Who Code books banned, according to the school district’s version of events? No, but that’s based on a vaguely defined bureaucratic technicality.
- Were the books effectively banned in classroom instruction because of how the district communicated with teachers? Yes, for a short period of time.
- Were the books taken out of the school library? Probably not.
- Did an afterschool program in the district continue uninterrupted, likely using the “banned” books? Yes.
- Were the books widely censored in the school district? Unlikely.
The Central York School District restricted a laundry list of books, movies, articles, and other teaching materials as the result of a controversial school board vote in November 2020, which would eventually lead to the furor over the Girls Who Code books. Here is a summary of what happened, in order:
- In August of 2020, educators in the school district compiled a diversity resource reading list in response to the murder of George Floyd. The list was intended to be a tool for teachers to use—a helpful place to find materials to discuss race in the classroom. The list also included media with diverse characters that didn’t necessarily focus on race. The Girls Who Code books were buried on that list—embedded within a link to another list.
- The local school board found out about the diversity resource list, and some parents got very angry about it, as has been happening all over the country as of late.
- In November 2020, the board voted to ban the resources on the list from use in the district’s classrooms, with the last-minute addendum that materials already in use would be excepted. “We are directing that we continue to use previous resources that have been used in the past,” said a school board member in that meeting. The Girls Who Code books were already in the school district libraries as well as in an afterschool program in Central York schools, according to Nicole Montgomery, the district communications director (This is the basis of the school district’s denial of the ban).
- Nothing happened for months.
- Board members got angry that the district hadn’t acted on the ban they’d voted for.
- In response to board pressure in August 2021, the district sent an email to teachers that linked to the full resource list and said “please see the attached list of resources that are not permitted to be utilized in the classroom. Please review and double check to make sure that none of these resources are being used.” The email did not note an exception for materials already in use.
- There was intense outcry from teachers, then parents, then community advocacy groups against the ban, as it was presented publicly.
- In September 2021, the board voted to put the ban on hold, unrestricting all of the diversity list materials. In total, the ban lasted for such a short time that it likely never actually changed anything in classroom curricula, school libraries, or elsewhere, according to both a community advocate and a Central York teacher.
- Nearly the whole school board (along with district leadership) was ousted and replaced after September 2021.
If this all sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Even the people most directly involved don’t really understand what happened.
Montgomery, the Central York communications director, sent Gizmodo materials supporting the assertion that the Girls Who Code afterschool class still went on as the ban was being debated, to demonstrate the associated books hadn’t been forbidden. Specifically, she forwarded along an email that was sent to parents with kids enrolled in the class and also sent a screenshot of the district’s internal scheduling system that shows Girls Who Code afterschool classes were renewed for the 2020-2021 year at two schools.
Yet, Patricia Jackson, an English teacher at Central York High School, told Gizmodo that afterschool classes and library books are approved via a totally different process from classroom curricula. A book can be physically present in a teacher’s classroom and still not be an approved part of the curriculum, she explained.
It is unclear if the Girls Who Code series was ever subject to the “already in use” exemption Montgomery and the school district are clinging to, because Gizmodo could not identify an in-school class that was teaching the books at the time of the ban vote. And the parameters of what the board decided were vague from the beginning. Even those who advocated and voted for the ban seemed confused about the extent of it, according to Jackson.
Mike Mountz, who was active in Citizens for Central York School District, a local advocacy group opposed to book ban, agreed. “It is very clear that this policy directive was written by people who are not actually supervisors [at the schools].”
Nobody held up a copy of a Girls Who Code: Lights, Music, Code in a school board meeting and claimed the specific text was inappropriate or offensive. Instead, the programming novels became an unintended casualty in a larger crusade to restrict what and how children are taught about the history of the United States, racism and inequality included.
“I think the fact that the district is clinging to a series of technicalities to explain its position here is kind of disgusting,” said Mountz. “If they’re going to speak on this issue, it should be to say, ‘We’re sorry,’ not to act as an apologist for a racially motivated, sweeping ban of resources that are of great instructional value.”
For her part, Saujani told Gizmodo she stands by her original statements to Insider. In a follow-up email, she wrote, “It’s ironic and alarming that the district is attempting to rewrite the history of what happened there in 2020-2021.”
Suzanne Trimel, A PEN America spokesperson, said in an email to Gizmodo, “If it is the case that Girls Who Code was never taken out of use in the district, that would be welcome news.” However, Trimel also emphasized that the organization stands by its report. By PEN America’s definition of a ban, the book was banned: “Any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
The district has yet to respond to Gizmodo’s follow-up questions about the accuracy of its initial denial.