Reading & Literacy

A School District’s Book Removals May Have Violated Students’ Civil Rights

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 26, 2023 7 min read
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A Georgia district’s removal of books about LGBTQ+ and racial minority characters may have violated students’ civil rights and created a “hostile environment,” the U.S. Department of Education determined in an investigation.

The Office of Civil Rights within the Education Department received a complaint alleging Forsyth County Schools was creating a hostile environment, due to the kinds of books targeted as well as the district’s lack of communication with students about the book removal process.

The office wrapped the investigation up after the district agreed to take a series of steps to resolve OCR’s concerns, and the result of its investigation was announced on May 19.

The intervention from the department office charged with enforcing civil rights laws as they relate to education signals that district book bans and removals may result in legal consequences.

This is the first time OCR has concluded an investigation into book banning in a district, which has been escalating nationwide since 2021. Three more cases related to book bans are currently under investigation, according to Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, who heads OCR.

“We identified concerns and then the district settled before we completed our investigation,” Lhamon said.

“The district’s response to the notice that it had a possibly hostile environment for students was not designed to and was not sufficient to address a hostile environment.”

While the civil rights office intervened in Forsyth County, the office did not say that any school district removal of titles about LGBTQ+ students or minority characters—two of the most common types of book bans—automatically constitutes a violation of students’ civil rights.

“This investigation and conclusion send a clear message to school districts and school boards around the country: Targeting books about race, racism, and/or LGBTQ+ identities and themes risks creating a hostile environment in violation of students’ civil rights,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, manager director of PEN America’s Washington office, in a statement. PEN America is a free speech advocacy organization that tracks book bans.

“Framing these book removals and restrictions as an attempt to limit access to sexually explicit material when the facts demonstrate otherwise will not dissuade federal investigators. Districts are on notice,” she said.

The conservative group Defense of Freedom Institute, meanwhile, objected to OCR’s settlement with the Georgia district.

“The department clearly seeks to blunt the input of parents in school library decisions and actually implies that this parental involvement caused a ‘hostile environment’ in the first place,” the group wrote in a letter to Lhamon. “DFI is extremely concerned that this agreement represents nothing less than a new, nationwide template that OCR will use to intimidate parents in their efforts to prevent their children from gaining access to sexually explicit material in school libraries.”

The escalation of book bans, and an emerging push against them

Most of the more than 4,000 books banned by districts in at least 32 states are about LGBTQ+ topics, or have primary or secondary characters of color, according to PEN America’s analyses of banned books from July 2021 to December 2022.

Book bans have escalated steadily since parents and community members started objecting to individual books as part of concerted action to remove specific material from school libraries in 2021.

Book bans have also grown more organized over the past two years, with more groups objecting to books based on concerns about pornography or sexually explicit content. New laws in a few states that restrict classroom lessons on sexual orientation, gender identity, and race have also contributed to large numbers of book bans, PEN America found.

However, book bans are starting to encounter resistance in courts. PEN America, along with one of the nation’s largest publishers, Penguin Random House, sued a Florida district earlier this month for banning books. Last month, the NAACP sued a South Carolina district for removing Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, alleging that the removal was politically and racially motivated.

What happened in the district to prompt the investigation

Forsyth County Schools, a district of more than 53,000 students near Atlanta, serves 49 percent white students, 27 percent Asian students, and 15 percent Hispanic students.

Forsyth County Schools started receiving complaints from parents about sexual content in books about LGBTQ+ characters and issues in the fall of 2021, according to the OCR investigation.

The investigation letter says a parent group also asked Forsyth schools to shelve LGBTQ+ books separately in school libraries and to place tags on the books.

In January 2022, the district’s media committee met to consider these requests, but ultimately rejected them, and approved a message to be posted on schools’ media pages.

“Forsyth County Schools’ media centers provide resources that reflect all students within each school community,” the statement says. “If you come across a book that does not match your family’s values and/or beliefs, and you would prefer that your child does not check that book out, please discuss it with your child.”

However, later that same month, the superintendent told the school board that he had authorized the district’s chief technology and information officer to pull books that were sexually explicit and or pornographic from school libraries, the OCR investigation letter said. The officer emailed the names of 15 titles to be removed entirely and to be restricted to high schools only.

At the February 2022 board meeting, students spoke against the book bans, saying that they immediately made the environment more harsh for students, and that LGBTQ+ students were “watching their safe spaces disappear,” according to the OCR report. Two other students said the district has made it hard to find books with main characters of minority backgrounds, and a third student said she believed the district does not care about diversity, based on its singling out of books about LGBTQ+ or minority characters, according to the OCR letter.

“The students were clear that they didn’t feel safe at school anymore,” Lhamon told EdWeek. “And the district didn’t take steps to ensure that they could feel like they are safe and that their school community does not operate a hostile environment for them.”

The district assembled a team of teachers, media specialists, students, and parents who volunteered to read eight books intended for permanent removal. The District Media Committee reviewed the feedback and voted to allow seven of the books at the high school level. The book that wasn’t approved was All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, according to Jennifer Caracciolo, the spokesperson for the district. All Boys Aren’t Blue is a series of essays documenting the author’s experiences growing up as a queer Black man.

The district agreed to resolve OCR’s hostile environment concerns

The OCR investigation found that, although the district took some steps to assure students and staff that its review process for books would not target certain groups, communications at school board meetings still conveyed the impression that books were being reviewed to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQ+ and authors who are not white. When students expressed concerns about the impact of removing books about non-white and LGBTQ+ characters, the district did not act to mitigate that impact.

To resolve the case, Forsyth schools agreed to notify the students about their policy about library books, and about how they could contact the district’s Title VI (which prohibits race based discrimination) and Title IX coordinators if they had concerns.

The district also agreed to conduct a climate survey of students addressing harassment in its schools and students’ recommendations for change, and then review the climate survey responses and report the results to OCR, according to the agreement.

The case will remain open until the district can demonstrate that it has complied with the terms of the settlement. and

“Only when we are satisfied that there is not a racially hostile or sexually hostile environment for students will we close monitoring for the district,” Lhamon said.

The district was already in communication with school administrators, media specialists, and parents about book bans, Caracciolo said in response to EdWeek inquiries following the results of the investigation. Now it will expand that to include students.

“In OCR’s review, they recommended that moving forward we communicate with students on issues such as these,” Caracciolo said.

“It was a great recommendation so we added it to the settlement. We are always looking for ways to improve communication with all stakeholders, especially our students.”

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