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In suburban Philadelphia, a school district is accused of stigmatizing LGBTQ students

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether a suburban Philadelphia school district is creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ students. The district in Bucks County adopted policies earlier this year that restrict library books and what teachers can display in their classrooms. From member station WHYY, Emily Rizzo reports.

EMILY RIZZO, BYLINE: Over the last six months, the Central Bucks School District has passed two controversial policies - one that prohibits books with sexualized content and one that censors classroom decorations and discussions that have to do with advocacy.

DEB CANNON: The fundamental mission of schools is to promote student achievement.

RIZZO: Board member Deb Cannon said at the most recent board meeting that the advocacy policy ensures materials are appropriate for the district's 17,000 students.

CANNON: Education should model an important element, neutrality as an academic virtue.

RIZZO: The policies are about protecting children from indoctrination, says parent Vonna DeArmond, who spoke at another board meeting.

VONNA DEARMOND: Can you be certain and can you guarantee that these books and those passages and those pictures, those graphic pictures, are not being used to groom...

RIZZO: To create these policies, the school board, which declined interview requests, worked with the conservative, evangelical Independence Law Center, associated with the Family Research Council. That organization is an extremist hate group, according to Andrew Seidel of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He says it targets LGBTQ people and wrongly characterizes them as pedophiles.

ANDREW SEIDEL: It is going to be imposing this anti-LGBTQ, Christian-nationalist ideology on public school children, and that is a huge problem.

ANUSHA VISWANATHAN: This has never been about neutrality. It has always been about extremism.

RIZZO: Bucks County parent Anusha Viswanathan.

VISWANATHAN: That was always a sham, but it's been proven beyond a doubt.

RIZZO: Parents like Viswanathan fear the policies chill classroom conversations. Opponents, like middle-schooler Mackenzie Junkin, say both policies target LGBTQ materials, like pride flags and books with queer characters.

MACKENZIE JUNKIN: It's just - it's scary to think that the world doesn't want you to be here for whatever made-up or insignificant reason.

RIZZO: WHYY has learned that four books with LGBTQ storylines are now being reviewed for possible removal. Policies like these are becoming more common in school districts around the country. Although many have been overturned by courts. This week, a few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, a Central Bucks high school principal told librarian Matt Pecic he had to remove posters that quoted author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel because they violated the district's advocacy policy.

MATT PECIC: Having to take it down was a very powerless feeling.

RIZZO: The Wiesel quote read, in part, we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

PECIC: (Crying) Just felt like I was not just letting down students, but my daughter. I'm like, you know, I want her to be proud of her dad.

RIZZO: After a social media uproar, the principal reversed his decision, and Pecic papered the library windows and doors with copies of the Wiesel quote. Still, the Central Bucks School District continues to defend its neutrality and advocacy policies.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Rizzo in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN GAUFFIN'S "FOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Rizzo | WHYY