At the March 14 board meeting of the Hilton Central School District in upstate New York, a parent raised concerns about the book This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson. The parent wanted it removed from the school library for containing inappropriate language and graphic depictions of sexual acts, according to superintendent Casey Kosiorek.
It was the first book challenge Hilton Central had faced since book challenges started escalating across the country in 2021, Kosiorek said.
After the challenge, some community members posted their objections to the book on social media, Kosiorek said. A group of parents who wanted the book removed from the library also planned a meeting at a local restaurant.
The morning of March 22, the same day as the planned meeting, a local TV station received an email, alleging that the sender had placed pipe bombs in the district’s central office, all five Hilton Central schools, and at Kosiorek’s house because of the district’s use of This Book Is Gay.
“There is nothing more vile and disgusting than violating a child’s innocence and that is exactly what this school district has done,” the threat, obtained by Education Week, said.
“They allow and encourage children to read sexual content such as This Book Is Gay.”
The email, which was full of spelling mistakes, claimed that the author had “experience making bombs in Yugoslavia.” Media stations alerted the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which alerted the district, Kosiorek said.
The district evacuated all students, and bomb-sniffing dogs were deployed to search the campuses, and the bomb squad was at the district in case any devices were found, according to Brendan Hurley, the public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s office.
In 2022, there were almost 6,000 school threats across the country reported to the FBI, a 60 percent increase over 2021. As both book bans and school threats have proliferated, a handful of districts like Hilton Central have experienced threats tied to book ban controversies.
The American Library Association documented about 50 cases of threats against districts or librarians as a result of book bans across 27 states, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom.
But the vast majority of school threats are not related to book bans. The Hilton CSD threat was part of a series of hoax threats sent to districts across the country, Hurley said. Iowa City Schools in Iowa also received similar emails.
Some other threats, such as one emailed by a parent to Virginia Beach educators, did not mention violence but asked school districts to remove obscene material from libraries to “avoid retribution.”
Threats clearly ‘a hoax meant to cause panic’
Although the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office suspected that the threats were not credible, Hilton Central received a second threat, also in an email sent to a local media station, later that week, Kosiorek said.
The district sheltered high school students in place, as they were already in the building. It kept younger students who were on their way to school on school buses away from the campuses, while bomb-sniffing dogs searched the schools again, Kosiorek and Hurley said.
On March 26, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Greece Police Department said in a joint statement that no credible threat had been found in either email.
“The investigation has been conducted with the assistance of our federal law enforcement partners, who have been able to confirm that a handful of other communities across the country had received somewhat similar email threats,” the joint statement said.
This has clearly been a hoax meant to cause panic and disruption in our school community.
“The common trait amongst these emails is the use of overseas email addresses and routing the messages through overseas servers, all to conceal their identity.”
“In each of these independent investigations, no credible threat has been identified,” the statement continued.
“We have not found any links between these emails and local individuals wishing harm on the school. This has clearly been a hoax meant to cause panic and disruption in our school community.”
The threatening emails were found to be coming from a Russian email address, and were not linked to any community members, Hurley said. The department is working with several federal agencies on an investigation into the threat, but Hurley did not specify which ones.
There have beenmultiple threats to high schools and colleges coming from overseas last year, including threats to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. As of November 2022, officials identified calls to about 250 colleges, 100 high schools, and several junior high schools since early June, according to the Associated Press.
These kinds of threats are called swatting, which means a false threat of violence, such as a school shooter or bomb threats, intended to cause disruptions.
Schools across the country are seeing an increasing amount of swatting threats, either through phone calls or emails, according to the Associated Press.
“The FBI is aware of the continued threats being made to schools throughout the area,” according to a statement sent by Jeannie McBride, the public affairs officer with FBI Buffalo.
“The FBI takes swatting very seriously. These threats put innocent people at risk and cause significant fear in the community. We have no information to indicate a specific and credible threat at this time, but we continue to collaborate with our law enforcement partners and are actively investigating these dangerous and criminal threats.”
The district has received an additional two bomb threats via emails sent to media stations, all with similar language. The last two times the district received threats, schools stayed open upon the approval of local law enforcement, although with heightened security.
“The social emotional toll on our students, their families, and our staff is heavy. We’re talking about someone who is looking to either kill or severely harm individuals with the use of bombs,” Kosiorek said.
“It’s used to bully and intimidate, and it has frightened quite a few people.”
Some families have pulled their kids out of the upstate New York district in light of the repeated threats. Even though the threats aren’t local or credible, Hilton Central’s Kosiorek spends a large part of his day following up with parents who are scared to send their children to school every time the district receives a new threat.
Book bans leading to threats of violence
While book bans have escalated steadily nationwide, most of the bans and challenges are not accompanied by threats. However, the American Library Association is seeing social media weaponized regularly against librarians, teachers, and citizens who speak up against censorship, according to ALA’s Caldwell-Stone.
“We’re seeing more of these threats directed at both the personnel in schools but also the schools themselves and the safety of children themselves,” Caldwell-Stone said.
“The irony of placing or threatening a bomb at a school for elementary students and middle school students to protect them from the supposed harms of reading, while threatening their very physical safety is… it’s just unspeakable.”
Although the threats have not led directly to violence against librarians or schools so far, they leave school staff in fear, and cause disruptions to district operations, according to several interviews with district leaders and employees, and law enforcement.
Amanda Jones, a librarian in rural Louisiana, gave a speech at her local public library against book banning, and became the target of extensive hate speech online after members of two Facebook groups posted comments about her speech.
Weeks later, Jones said she received a death threat from Texas via email. She contacted police, who she says told her they would extradite the Texas man who sent her the death threat. The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The former National Librarian of the Year sued the owners of the Facebook groups over the online attacks, but her case was dismissed because the judge determined that she was a public figure.
We're seeing more of these threats directed at both the personnel in schools but also the schools themselves and the safety of children themselves.
Jones had to take time off from her school district and go on medical leave to cope with the stress of the alleged defamation and threats she faced for speaking out against censorship.
“While the threats against librarians are spreading across the country, it seems to be consistent with only a small minority of extremists,” Jones said. “The impact of these attempts to censor books and sections of our society will be seen for decades and do irreparable harm. Nobody is putting pornography in libraries and politicians are seeking a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, at the sake of the taxpayers.”
What happened to the book in question
The author of This Book Is Gay, Dawson, spent seven years as a sex education and wellness teacher before writing the book, which is a guide to sex education and focuses on the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, according to Rolling Stone.
In just the last six months of 2022, the book was challenged and banned in at least 10 districts, according to PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization.
In Hilton Central, the book is currently under review by a committee that consists of building leaders, librarians, and community members. While the review is ongoing, the book remains unavailable to students, Kosiorek said. The book review was triggered by the formal challenge from the parent, not the bomb threats.
“There is a system created to challenge these books. We can use that system to go through that process to review this type of information and whether it’s appropriate or not,” Kosiorek said. “But to move to these measures is cowardly. And it’s extremely inappropriate.”
However, Kosiorek continues to believe that the book furthers the district’s mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I have heard from our LGBTQ+ community, the importance for having a book like this because when students are identifying with either their sexual identity or preference, that often that might be a conversation that they’re not ready to have,” he said. “And these types of resources within the library can help them understand that they were born the way that they are.”
A similar bomb threat email was also sent to Iowa City Public Schools in Iowa, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. The district responded by pulling This Book Is Gay for review, not because of parent objections but because of the disruption it caused.
Iowa City Schools did not respond to requests for an interview.
A Virginia district faces threats of retribution
In Virginia Beach, Va., unlike Hilton Central, parents, and community members objecting to book bans aren’t rare. Books such as Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye have been called inappropriate and obscene at board meetings for several months, according to Superintendent Aaron Spence.
But last September, a parent emailed some district staff members—including librarians—saying that under Spence’s supervision, the district was violating federal law by distributing obscene material to minors, citing federal obscenity laws.
“I know you are aware that, under the supervision of Aaron Spence, there have been multiple books containing obscene material distributed to Virginia Beach schools,” the email said.
“Would you please pass this information along to others so that they are aware of the laws and can avoid retribution?”
Other community members then sent that same email to the school district’s librarians, Spence said. Librarians told their supervisors that they were concerned about the emailed threats, as well as some indirect violent threats on social media in the form of comments on posts about controversial books in the district.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we would have any issues in our school environment or in our school discussions that would end up leading to such conflict if somebody felt they needed to threaten staff members,” Spence said.
“I am hopeful that in public education, we can return the discourse to what’s important and that’s what’s best for our children … and that we remove these conversations from the political arena and return them to a civil discourse.”
Eventually, the district formed a committee to review Gender Queer and it was eventually removed from school libraries.
As a school leader, it’s important to make sure employees know that their district supports them if they’re threatened for doing their jobs, Spence said.
“Our response was to assure our employees that they were operating within the law and that they didn’t have reason to be concerned,” he said. “And that we support them and we support their efforts and we recognize them and value their hard work.”