Nate Myer said before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, he didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in schools despite his five children being enrolled in the Warwick School District.
The Lititz resident and pastor at Chiques Church in Rapho Township said it was masking and social distancing requirements in the schools that got him and other parents involved at looking at the state of their children’s schools. But he said he will never forget sitting in a Warwick School Board meeting when a parent read a passage out of a controversial book in the library, saying he was shocked at what he heard.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted that that kind of language would be in a book that’s being used as curriculum in a school,” Myer said. “And that was really the beginning of digging into this and starting to say, ‘What’s going on?’”
Myer was one of several local clergy that attended a meeting on Nov. 29 at the Warwick Township building organized by Warwick Parents for Change, a local community group advocating for parental rights and who have been challenging the district on enforcing existing policies regarding obscenities and sexual material. Around 50 people attended the meeting, including teachers, clergy, parents and concerned citizens.
Mark Mueller, a member of Warwick Parents for Change, sent invitations earlier in the month to local clergy and church leaders to attend the meeting to start a dialogue on ways churches can get more involved in the lives of students and to speak out more on ideologies being pushed in the classroom.
Under Warwick’s educational equity policy approved in March, students whose gender is not the same as their birth sex are to receive equal treatment in school. The policy states, “Equity in education is defined as every student having access to the resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, family background and/or family income.”
Mueller said the group received “a lot of blowback” over perceptions of what some people in the community believed was being discussed at the meeting. He said a young person wrote on social media that he resented the group attempting to “impose a Christian worldview on the public school system.”
“I wrote back to him and said, ‘I’m trying to advocate for reality,’” Mueller said. “And if reality comports with Christianity, then, yeah, you can say that I am advocating for a Christian worldview. This fantasy land that’s being put forth as reality is something we need to talk about.”
Myer opened the meeting with a devotional referencing the book of Ezekiel, saying the words should “sound the warning when we see danger coming” as a message to leaders and parents to what is happening in the schools and communities and to serve as a “watchman.”
“I need to stay involved – I can’t just walk away from the things that are going on,” Myer said. “And I need to actually tell my congregation of the things that are going on, because I’m responsible. I’m accountable. We all are to God.”
Discussions during the first hour of the meeting were led primarily by parents and residents as members of Warwick Parents for Change laid out their concerns regarding reading materials, the emotional state of students and other issues.
Sarah Miller, a Lititz resident and ER and critical care nurse for 15 years, said she’s “never been more demoralized” by what she’s seeing happening to the youth in and around Lititz. Miller said a “societal problem” exists with the number of children she’s encountering who are attempting suicide.
Miller said some of the difficult issues children are experiencing are the result of an “unrealistic world” created by adults on younger generations.
“We’re afraid to tell kids ‘No,’ and we’re afraid to steer kids back,” Miller said. “And we set these kids up with no coping mechanisms.”
Lititz resident Deb Rutter said she didn’t have any children who attended school in the district, but she said growing up as a Navy child exposed her to nearly a dozen different school districts. Rutter said she believes students are being “brainwashed” through the curriculum and aren’t being properly prepared to go into the world to be successful in life.
“Never once did I ever have somebody telling me that I was in the wrong body,” Rutter said. “Never once did I have access to books with some of the language that I’ve been reading here that I would even accuse a sailor of saying. This is absurd to have young children reading that kind of language. Never once did I have a history teacher telling me that the Pilgrims came over here so they can enslave people. I am very concerned about the future of this country.”
Anne Pyle, a Lititz resident who ran several times unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Warwick School Board, asked what the members of Warwick Parents for Change believed to be their “mandate” going forward. Pyle, who said she has a “very heavy education background,” asked if the group was looking to create a new curriculum for teachers and students in the district.
Pyle also asked what the group’s opinion was on the district’s opt out program, which allows parents to opt children out of access to books parents deem inappropriate. She said to her knowledge, of the 1,400 students at the high school, only seven students were opted out of reading certain books.
“If those books are so detrimental to their education and their future life, why aren’t more parents opting out?” Pyle asked. “That, to me, is parental control. That means that the parents are involved in those seven kids’ lives to the point where they’ve looked at the books, and they’ve determined those books aren’t right for their child.”
Violet Weitzel, a parent of children in the school district, said her son recently transferred from a Christian school and “would rather die than opt out of a book.” Weitzel said she allowed him to read the book “full of foul language” and containing themes of critical race theory, a Marxist-based academic movement.
“To make a child sit outside the room, away from their friends, they’re just looked at like some freak,” Weitzel said of students who opt out of reading a curriculum book.
Justin Kratzer, an administrator on Warwick Parents for Change’s Facebook page, said “record numbers” of families have opted their children entirely out of the Warwick School District over the last few years, with as much as $300,000 listed on one financial statement this year for payments by Warwick of students attending different schools.
Kratzer said most families in the district don’t know that the opt out policy for books is an option for their students. And he said Lititz residents who don’t have students in the district are shocked when they’re told what’s being taught and the available materials.
“Codified insanity is a pretty common trend of what people see when they look at some of the stuff that has been found in the public school,” Kratzer said. “Many people that don’t have kids in the district anymore don’t pay attention to what goes on in the district.”
Kratzer said the district continues to ignore its own established code of conduct and policy regarding obscene materials, including library books.
“As a parent, I don’t feel like it’s unreasonable to ask the district to comply with their own standards and definitions and put content in front of our kids that has some value, not just shock value,” Kratzer said. “The library itself is there not for entertainment, not for leisure – that’s the Lititz Public Library. The library at the school’s purpose is to supplement the curriculum.”
Lititz resident Amy Martin said she opted her one child out of reading the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, which is part of the high school curriculum. Martin said the F-word is used 38 times in the book, and she doesn’t permit swearing at home.
“They can get suspended or punished for saying the F-bomb in the hallway, but if they have to read the book out loud for class in the classroom, it’s okay,” Martin said. “So that doesn’t work for me.”
Gender Queer Discussion
Martin also brought up the controversial book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel that depicts explicit sex scenes. A copy of the book is available for students to read in the high school library.
Martin held up a copy of the book, showing some of the pages depicting sex acts by children. She said even if she opts her child out of being able to check out the book from the library, they would still be able to look at it in the school.
“If I’m going to tell my kids about sex, which I will in an appropriate fashion, I’m going to tell them the way God presents sex,” Martin said. “They are going to be faced with this stuff, absolutely. I’m not naive. I know they are. But if I know it’s in front of them in a building that we entrust with our kids, I’m going to darn do everything I can to get it out of there.”
Doug Balmer, a chemistry teacher at Warwick High School, said he recently went to the high school to see if he could sign out the book “just so I could see what all the hubbub was about.” Balmer said he was told the book was in the library “but it’s not on the shelf, so it cannot be signed out.”
Several parents pushed back and said the book was still available to be checked out by students. According to a post on the Warwick Parents for Change page after the meeting, a parent reached out to the school librarian about the book and was told it was still available for check out and had not been removed from circulation.
Miller asked Balmer if he thinks Gender Queer should be available in the school library and what his reaction would be if a student in his class had the book open to a graphic sex page.
“Maybe there is a family that gets off, and that’s what they’re doing during the table conversation about the latest book with porn,” Miller said. “But it’s not 99% of the school district. And it’s not a partisan issue. And it’s not even a religious issue.”
Balmer said he doesn’t think the book should be in the school library, but he said he agreed with the institution of the educational equity policy. He said he grew up in a conservative household where he was told if he wanted to get an earring that he had to wear a dress because men didn’t get their ears pierced.
“I think this (policy) sets up the standard for what gender is,” Balmer said. “And there’s some girls that aren’t allowed to wear pants. That’s fine, if that’s what their house believes. I cannot discriminate against girls that choose to wear pants where their culture allows them to wear skirts or dresses.”
High School health and physical education teacher Michael Brown asked Balmer if boys should be allowed in girls locker rooms and girls in boys locker rooms per the equity policy. Brown called the policy a “slippery slope” that needed to be stopped before it went further.
Balmer said he doesn’t believe in the slippery slope theory and that in college it was a concept to “shut down an argument.” He said he believes the policy “is a good thing.”
“No matter who you are, what your gender is, what your ethnicity is, I’m not allowed to discriminate against you,” Balmer said.
Brown said he plans to retire in June after nearly 30 years of teaching and that the current education system is “in worse shape than I got it.” He said he struggles with the state of education and feels like he was “responsible for getting us here,” which has led to his involvement with Warwick Parents for Change.
“I don’t know what to do,” Brown said.
“I need help from the churches,” Brown said. “I need help from pastors. I need people to tell me. I know and feel like this is wrong what we’re teaching the kids. I feel like gender identity and all this stuff is wrong, but every time you make that conversation or have that conversation…the blowback I get is that you’re teaching Christian principles. And I don’t know what to do with it.”
The Rev. Ken Miller of St. Paul’s Evangelical Congregational Church in Rothsville responded to Brown, saying the group has “got the wrong target.”
“The school district is not the enemy,” Miller said. “These are much deeper, bigger things than a local school district is going to be able to do anything about even if they wanted to.”
Miller pointed to Warwick Superintendent April Hershey, calling her a “fine Christian woman” who “grieves over some of these things as well” while working within the system that’s “handed to her.” He said there are “many strings attached” to federal money coming to schools that administrators have to deal with.
When examining gender issues in schools, Miller said, a key to have successful conversations is to “follow the science.”
“The science will put it out there as clearly as anything,” Miller said. “It will show you that brain development, sexuality and sexual awareness in the brain develops at times usually through the teen years, but not the same for everybody. Brain development does not include sexual identity until later in life after some of these things are done. If you want to express concern about where things are going in terms of some of these curriculum issues, it has to be done with the science.”
The Rev. Matt Lenahan of Zion Lutheran Church in Akron spoke at the end of the meeting. Lenahan, a resident of Lititz who had three children go through the school district, had spoken out in the media before the meeting about Warwick Parents for Change, criticizing the group.
Lenahan said he agreed that books like Gender Queer were probably not appropriate for public schools, but he said other controversial books like All American Boys were important to include in the curriculum because it deals with topics like racial tension that can lead to a “frank and open conversation.”
He said he is “troubled” by conversations that “foment a tremendous amount of distrust in public institutions and in public educators,” saying his wife is a teacher along with many of his friends.
“They want to challenge young people so that they grow, so that they can become good and productive people in society who are aware of some things that are true about society that aren’t necessarily so true about lovely little Lititz, where we grow up in a fairly significant moment,” Lenahan said. “As far as I can tell, everybody in this room would identify as white, if they had to.”
Lenahan’s statement about white people generated several impassioned comments, including one from Lititz resident Reggie Weaver.
Weaver said he is Columbian by birth and grew up in a house with a Brazilian brother, a black brother and a white sister. He said his family also consisted of “black-bumper Mennonites.”
“I take great offense to that to say everyone in here just looks white,” Weaver said.
“I didn’t see you in the room, and I apologize,” Lenahan said.
Staff writer Michael Yoder is an award-winning journalist who has been honored with several Keystone Press Awards for his investigative pieces. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @yoderreports on Twitter.