MILFORD, PA — To students, watching their parents spar over rarely checked-out books in an age when all information is just a thought away, it may seem typical parental folly along the lines of …
MILFORD, PA — To students, watching their parents spar over rarely checked-out books in an age when all information is just a thought away, it may seem typical parental folly along the lines of “video games will make you cross-eyed” and “wear a jacket, it’s cold outside.” The debate, however, is real enough for the Delaware Valley education community.
According to Matthew Contreras, director of Pennsylvania Advocates for Children’s Education (PACE), the group’s goal at the Delaware Valley School District is not to ban books. To others, Contreras’ efforts are a gateway to larger conservative goals to meddle with the machinery of education.
“We don’t think books with explicitly violent, sexual content should be available in public schools,” Contreras said. “We aren’t trying to take them out of public libraries or someone’s home.”
“Taking books off the shelves is banning books,” Delaware Valley School District superintendent Dr. John Bell said. He agreed with Contreras, and categorized the complaints as “a small group of books.”
“We have 145,000 books in our seven libraries,” Bell said. “Reading books from the library is a choice, and parents have access and can monitor all material being read by their children. They can also request from their child’s teacher an alternative assignment if any classroom reading material is judged inappropriate by the parents—that’s school policy.”
Contreras is a 48-year-old military veteran of Spanish descent, college educated, married with a child, and is a partner at human resource company Tristate Domestic. He lives in Milford but sends his only son to a private school. He was elected inspector of elections for Milford Township. He is one of several residents of Pike County who has emerged in unelected leadership roles over the last year, along with Lisa McAteer, Gina Mancato and Anastasia Theodoropoulos. He is present and vocal at public meetings, speaking for an unseen group of concerned parents, and at times he considered questions about his background, family and hence qualifications to be such a representative to be off-limits.
These figureheads rallied against masks and for “freedoms,” use Facebook aggressively, cite the Constitution, and can draw a crowd for issues that rank on their radar. Like tens of millions of Americans, Contreras believes the January 6 riots that attempted to disrupt the peaceful transition of power in America was a deep fake by the likes of Nancy Pelosi and the FBI, along the lines of the Hillary Clinton Russia hoax. “I think we are going to keep discovering new information as we peel back the onion,” he said.
“I’m able to be a voice for hundreds of families,” he said. “Not having an active student in the district means I’m insulated from retribution through my child, which is why I’m a good fit for the role I’m in in PACE.” There has been no effective way to verify the number of community members associated with PACE, and Contreras’ social media profile has been purposely lowered since several Pike County residents began harassing him at work.
“This is a small group of parents,” Bell told the Pike Courier, “many without children in the district.” At a school board workshop meeting on March 10, those in opposition to pulling books off shelves outnumbered those in favor, perhaps signaling a renewed effort by area parents to hold the line against these curriculum restrictions.
The waning of the pandemic precautions has also allowed a wider slice of Pike County residents to safely participate in in-person civic conversations, which last year were dominated by an anti-mask, anti-vaccine crowd, due to safety reasons and lack of safety precaution enforcement at school board meetings.
“Some see this group as only happy when they are unhappy,” said a frequent board meeting attendee. “COVID-19, masking, vaccines, they created some common ground with the board, but that ground is less fertile with other subjects.”
Contreras, a lone wolf of sorts and wary of being grouped with the broader melange of school board and culture activists, began showing up at DVSD board meetings last summer as school boards across the country became battlegrounds and fixed targets for a wide range of issues from masks to COVID-19 science, vaccines, masking, critical race theory and social-emotional learning.
“I get lumped in with this right wing stuff and I get treated like a white guy from Arkansas. I grew up as a minority in the melting pot of New York City,” he said.
PACE’s website was recently scrubbed of some documents, including a downloadable form that was pinned to the site, able to be filled out and sent to the school by parents, that questioned COVID-19’s existence and challenged the truth of asymptomatic virus spread and reliability of PCR testing. It still hosts what are considered far-right policy initiatives, including two stalled Pennsylvania House bills that deal with curriculum and race in schools. “The website is definitely under review and needs to be updated,” Contreras said.
Contreras was one of many who challenged COVID-19 restrictions and pushed the school board to take the lead in emerging from state and federal mandates. The school board, reconstituted and empowered after an election, did ultimately move in that direction, satisfying many in the community.
Soon after that, board president Jack Fisher abruptly shut down a board meeting when Contreras compared the school board to the Gestapo for failing to act or heed other issues, signaling the common ground was shrinking.
The school board just instituted a five-minute-per-person comment limit (still longer than most boards allow), bringing to an end the individual monologues that dragged meetings out for hours.
“I support and like these guys,“ Contreras said, referring to DVSD superintendent Dr. John Bell and school board president Jack Fisher. “Have we pushed them? Yes. The school board has ceded too much control to the administration, and we elected the school board to represent the community.
“It’s clear there is a progressive push to infiltrate the lower grades with a type of [gender] material,” he said, regarding some of the books targeted for removal. To illustrate his point, Florida has just passed a bill forbidding instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. “Should be K-12 in my opinion,” he said. “The law is defensive in nature, against the agenda of the progressives. It’s not the school’s or government’s place.”
Contreras points to a recent anonymous national youth tobacco study given to a small sample of middle school students. “The tobacco study was 160 questions, given to sixth-graders I believe this year,” he said. “At the end, there were questions unrelated to tobacco dealing with gender and asking questions like ‘Do you identify as transgender?’ and ‘How many computers do you have in your house?’ It had no business being there, and the school administration had no idea it was there.”
When asked about this, Bell conceded it was “a shame” the CDC added those two questions and clouded the survey’s purpose, and that Contreras had a point. “I would have rather spent a few minutes declining to participate if we had known they stuck these questions in there than all the time since explaining how it happened.”
“You take a look at the Wonder Reader list for English reading,” Contreras said. “This is not civics, or history, or social studies class— it’s English reading. The three of the first five recommendations are about immigration, civil rights and social justice. Progressive agenda issues disguised as a reading list.”
Bell said, “In fairness to Matt, I’ve spent more time than most in a college setting as a student, and there’s a lot of people from the far left in higher education. However, I disagree with his hyperbole about our elementary school reading series.”
Contreras is regularly at odds with area progressives and both sides point a respective finger at the other, categorizing their actions as hypocritical.
“Dr. Seuss should be removed from circulation but let’s let this extreme sexual content in our school libraries,” Contreras said. “Let’s have micro-aggression debates, trigger alerts and content warnings at colleges, but allow these types of books in our school library where minors can see them. Do we allow Hustler in the libraries?”
Conversations on area Facebook pages reflected opposing views. “[Conservatives] complaining about ‘My freedoms’ except when it comes to reading,” read one thread that represented the larger conversation. “Freedom” and “Leave it up to the parents” were two rallying cries heard during the pandemic to support the anti-vaccine and anti-mask mandates.
In 2020, three of the top 10 challenged books in America, according to the American Library Association, were challenged by liberal groups because of their depictions of “white saviors” (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and racial stereotypes (“Of Mice and Men”). The books that conservatives objected to concerned gender, sex issues and anti-police messaging.
“Go ahead and try to keep something from a teenager… it’s the best way for them to become interested in it,” said another writer. “Do you pull sugary cereal from the grocery store because food like that literally will kill you over time?”
Contreras compares his objectives to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., using King’s famed Lincoln Memorial quote, “where children won’t be judged by the color of their skin.” He dismisses perspectives that may be the result of generational discrimination and uses his own minority status to illustrate the importance of individual effort. Contreras speaks convincingly, and it’s clear why, as he tells the story, he went from a bystander at “a small gathering in a kitchen” to the leader of PACE and the target of opponent’s ire.
Heather Simmons, co-owner of Burn the Ships Crossfit in Port Jervis and a mother of three, describes her view of the controversy. “I don’t want the books pulled,” she said. “I monitor what [my daughter] reads, and if she comes across something that isn’t age-appropriate, we talk about it. She’s always been an advanced reader, so she has been coming across challenging ideas from the start. It gives me the chance as a parent to put what she is learning or reading into our family’s perspective and life view.”
On the Unmask our DV Students Facebook page, one poster wrote, “Consider what they [liberals] have taken out of the reading list because they don’t agree with it. You know very well there are many classic titles they think have no place in libraries.”
Ed Gragert, leader of Delaware Valley Action!, a liberal group in Pike County, might have inadvertently summed it up best when he declined to comment, indirectly acknowledging that Contreras has a point, that what we read does impact what we think, especially so for younger, more impressionable people.
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