The guy wearing a camo baseball hat and baggy winter coat was among more than three dozen people who came before the Central Bucks School Board on Tuesday night to speak about library books, democracy, indoctrination, and American freedoms.
He was concerned about a children’s book that had two male penguins holding hands. Another was about the "Giving Tree" that granted a child all their wishes, which he called clearly a reference to communism. Pride flags in classrooms should be replaced with copies of the Declaration of Independence, a document that kids need to know about, he said.
“It's not just a piece of paper, it's a map that leads to a treasure of Templar gold. That is why Nicolas Cage tried to steal it," he said. "As these liberals try to steal our Constitution the only way to stop it is to steal it first.”
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In just under three-minutes, comedian Walter Masterson hit every buzzword and extreme conservative political talking point that has bitterly divided residents of this affluent suburban Philadelphia school district over the last three years.
The appearance was another opportunity for Masterson to perform his satire-based content, which mocks extreme-right ideology and its followers, amassing him a huge social media presence including more than 1 million followers on his TikTok account.
But if the public comment portion of the Tuesday board meeting is any indication, the culture war in Pennsylvania’s third largest school districts shows no sign of slowing. After two hours, the board closed public comment promising to reopen it where it stopped at the next meeting.
Supporters of the Republican-majority school board, its direction and the policy decisions contended that its politically motivated opponents and defiant district educators who are responsible for inflaming students and others, and spreading misinformation, hate, exaggerations and lies aimed at disparaging the school board majority.
“You know full well we didn’t ban books, and the reasons why parents want them out," Buckingham resident Shannon Harris said, directing her comments at the three minority board members. "You know full well that our district wanted the neutrality policy to get back to academics, improve learning loss and foster a cohesive student body.”
Speakers: Removal of Holocaust survivor's quote alarming
Residents aired new concerns about discrimination in response to the recent controversy where the principal directed a Central Bucks South librarian to remove posters containing a quote from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace winning author Elie Wiesel. A recently adopted policy forbids classroom displays advocating politics or social policy unless related to a lesson.
The removal order was rescinded the next day and the posters allowed, but not before the incident went viral on social media generating a flood of criticism for the district, which later apologized and said it regretted the decision to remove the posters.
Speakers expressed dissatisfaction with the district's handling of the situation and expressed concerns about underlying antisemitism in the district exacerbated by the classroom neutrality policy.
One Warrington man said that he considered borrowing from his synagogue a rare Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust to bring to the Tuesday board meeting, but he reconsidered.
“I don’t view this place as safe,” he said.
The removal of the Wiesel quote, days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, never should have happened, and likely would not have happened if not for the district’s "neutrality” policy, said Andrew Goretsky, regional director of the Philadelphia Anti- Defamation League.
Goretsky called the latest policy one that chills freedom of speech and forces educators to spend class time second guessing themselves rather than educate students.
“The unfortunate irony of this policy is the claim that it exists to protect students, while the majority of students do not view symbols of equity and inclusion based on gender, race, sexual orientation and other characteristics as a cause for concern," he added. "Adults are the ones deciding that these characteristics are the root of a problem that must be addressed."
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Students: Ban on classroom expression is hurting kids
Students also urged the board to retract its library and classroom “neutrality” policies saying they hurt students who belong to LGBTQ+ community and further degrade their existence in the district.
Pride flags can make LGBTQ+ students feel they are in a place that supports them, high school student Evi Casey said. There is nothing political about showing support for a marginalized community, she added.
“Now you are taking that hatred out on literal children,” she said. “You should be ashamed to be sitting on the podium.”
Cheyenne Torres said she has heard students mock and threaten LGBTQ+ students, and worries board policies will mean her school will lose its “No Place For Hate” designation.
She called the board’s neutrality policy as encouraging discrimination and failing to prepare students to live in a world occupied by more than “straight, white men.”
“The school board claims they are doing what’s best for students by having a state of neutrality, but by having this so-called state, you’re causing the downfall of students,” she said. “Shutting out the voices of those who are scared as it is to wake up and go to school every morning.
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Policy supporters: Rules are about protecting children, putting parents before government
Board majority supporters, though, maintained that the district's actions are motivated by the need to protect children and the educational integrity of the district, and give parents more of a direct say and priority over children's education.
Buckingham resident Leslie Watson described the neutral classroom policy as “the least divisive and fairest policy.”
“This is not about intolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community, but about children and the rights of parents,” she said. “Tolerance for one another means respecting all our rights including those you don’t agree with.”
Watson pointed out that residents with different viewpoints and beliefs peacefully coexisted for decades without problems.
"What has changed over the past few years that is causing the current division? I believe the division is due to pushing an agenda on our children, using the public schools, and subverting the rights of parents,” she said.
Watson characterized allegations that LGBTQ+ children in the district are unsafe as “deceptive and untrue.”
“There is no evidence that any child in the Central Bucks School District is unsafe regardless of the child’s feelings about safety,” she said.
She added that if the LBGTQ+ community has the right to display Pride flags in schools, then so do people who want to display “straight flags, boy flags, girl flags, furry flags and a multitude of other flags.”
“Would all these flags create unity or would it just divide us even further? Watson asked. “Hanging a flag does not provide safety and love to children rather that is the responsibility of adults."
The “vast majority” of the community believe schools are an inappropriate venue to display “ideology of any kind, sexual and political materials, Warrington resident Sandy Gerger added. She supports the neutral classroom policy because it provides a “visually calming and quiet classroom.”
Recently she said the child of a friend complained to her about being distracted by the “posters, slogans and political propaganda” in her classroom.
"School is there to educate and prepare kids to become self-sufficient adults capable of living on their own,” she said. “No potential boss is going to ask your child about their sexual preferences or political views. They want to know about their skills and their learning."
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This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Culture war conflict shows no signs of weakening in Central Bucks