Penncrest solicitor resigns from school district as schools pull books from shelves

An Erie attorney has resigned as the main legal counsel for the Penncrest School District following the school board’s votes on two controversial policies earlier this month to ban certain books and set limits on transgender athletes.

Attorney George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, tendered his resignation letter on Jan. 20, citing a “fundamental disagreement” with a majority of the school board that “compromised (the law firm’s) ability to provide legal ongoing services” with the district.

More: Penncrest board enacts book ban with one policy, targets transgender athletes with another

“Most notably, I recently rendered a legal opinion highlighting a number of concerns regarding proposed changes to Policies 109.2 and 123,” Joseph said. “The Board chose not to take my advice. Given my legal opinion, I am constrained to conclude that this firm would not be in a position to zealously represent the District’s position in any anticipated litigation,” Joseph’s resignation letter states.

Policy 109.2 is the district’s new library policy prohibiting “sexually explicit” content in the school and Policy 123 is an athletics policy that Board President Luigi DeFrancesco told the USA TODAY Network previously would prohibit transgender students from playing on the same team as their identified gender.

Saegertown High School Senior Ella Worley returns “To Kill a Mockingbird” to librarian Mike Brenneman on the morning of Jan. 20, 2023. Teachers received an email directing them to send several students to the library with their books. Photo by Panther Press photo and design editor Luthea Sweeney, 18.
Saegertown High School Senior Ella Worley returns “To Kill a Mockingbird” to librarian Mike Brenneman on the morning of Jan. 20, 2023. Teachers received an email directing them to send several students to the library with their books. Photo by Panther Press photo and design editor Luthea Sweeney, 18.

School board member Jeff Brooks, who provided the USA TODAY Network with a copy of the resignation letter this week, said the solicitor advised the district that the policies could put the district in legal trouble.

A similar library policy passed in the Central Bucks School District, Bucks County, is now part of a 72-page LGTBQ discrimination complaint filed by the ACLU of PA that is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Each of the districts have faced public backlash over their new library rules over concerns that they would create a pathway to banning books, particularly ones focused on gay or transgender issues.

Book bans in PA:1st look at Central Bucks' library policy for challenged books

DeFrancesco and board member David Valesky, who chairs the district’s policy committee, have said in past meetings that neither policy targets a specific group and that the library policy specifically is about weeding out “pornographic” material.

The final straw for George came during a Jan. 9 work session discussion about the policies prior to a final board vote on Jan. 12.

Board members called legal analysis 'a joke'

Two unidentified board members referred to his legal analysis as “worthless” and “a joke … not even legal,” according to George’s letter.

George was not present at the meeting, but the comments were relayed to by the substitute solicitor from the law firm.

“While Board members may disagree with my opinions, I cannot ignore a statement impugning my reputation as a member of the legal community in a public forum, especially where there is no practical opportunity for me or my partner to respond,” George wrote.

George’s letter adds that his firm will assist the district in finding new legal representation to handle ongoing labor negotiations with teachers and pending litigation.

“Fortunately, we are in a period where pending legal matters are minimal, although that may be short lived," George wrote.

In a story published by the Panther Press, Saegertown Junior-Senior High School's student newspaper, district Superintendent Tim Glasspool and DeFrancesco said the search for a new solicitor will begin in the near future.

“Personally, I’d like to find a local solicitor that upholds the Constitution and values our nation we’re founded on,” Valesky told the school paper this week. “It’s very important that the Board and solicitor can work together.”

Earlier:Penncrest board poised to ban some books from school libraries

On Jan. 20, the same day George drafted his resignation, the district began enforcing its library policy with a review of several titles — including Harper Lee’s Pultizer Prize-winning classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" — as librarians and teachers began removing other books that could potentially violate the policy as a precaution, according to sources in the district and reported by the Panther Press.

Glasspool told the USA TODAY Network on Thursday that the libraries were closed for “several days. They are currently open.”

“An individual completed a policy 109.1 request for several books to be reviewed. Most were reviewed and returned,” Glasspool added. “The review committee has also recommended the review of other books. We are in the process of reviewing several additional books.”

Glasspool did not provide a specific list of the books under review in his email Thursday morning, though he did say he would follow up with the review committee for more details.

Glasspool added that he would be out most of the day and would respond to follow-up questions when he was available.

Luthea Sweeney, 18, a senior at Saegertown High School and the school paper's photo and design editor, reported Thursday that the library in her school wasn’t expected to open until Thursday.

A book of interviews with transgender youth called "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out," by Susan Kuklin, was one of 13 books reportedly removed from the high school library since last Friday.

An administrative email instructed teachers to send any students who had currently checked out any of the challenged books to their respective libraries to return them.

A broader battle over parental control

Pushes to get certain books banned in public school libraries has been an ongoing effort led largely by conservative groups arguing for more parental control in education.

In Pennsylvania, in the 2021-2022 school year, 11 school districts banned 457 books from libraries or classrooms, according to PEN America, an advocacy group for writers and literary freedom. Only Texas and Florida schools banned more books.

While school officials like the majority board members in Penncrest disagree that their policies are a form of banning books, legal advocates like the ACLU of PA and the Education Law Center have said similar policies open the door to limit access to books that may be controversial or simply represent a worldview that officials don’t support.

PA Family Institute edited library rule:Conservative group involved in Central Bucks library regulations some fear as defacto book ban

The York Central School District in York County “froze” a number of books in November 2020 that were said to be under review for questionable material. Nearly a year passed and school officials acknowledged no reviews had been conducted.

Nearly all of the books kept out of circulation in York Central were books about confronting systemic racism and similar topics. The district rescinded its order to freeze the books following a series of student-led protests in 2021.

As evident by policies in Penncrest, Central Bucks and reportedly other districts in the state, the push to ban books in school libraries is only gaining momentum.

Banned books: School libraries are another battleground in culture wars in Pa., nationwide

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Penncrest lawyer splits with school district after policy votes