Ed Dept: Removing explicit books from school library may have created hostile environment

School girl reading book in library
Photo: Allison Shelley/EDUimages

A Georgia school district has entered into a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after permanently removing one book from its libraries and temporarily removing seven others over concerns about sexually explicit content. 

As a result of the federal agency’s investigation into Forsyth County Schools, the district will be forced to issue a statement explaining the book removal process and offer “support to students who may have been impacted by the book removal process.”

According to the Office of Civil Right’s investigation, parents and community members complained in the fall of 2021 about students having access to inappropriate books in Forsyth’s school libraries. Parents voiced concerns about sexual content and LGBTQ+ themes in the books. 

Parents reportedly asked the school district to put LGBTQ+ books in a separate location and put tags on the books, according to the investigation findings.

In January of the next year, the District Media Committee convened and rejected a proposal that would require parental permission to check out books because it would make librarians “gatekeepers” and also rejected the proposal to move or mark LGBTQ+ materials as it could be detrimental to students. 

The committee did approve a statement that affirmed students’ abilities to read what books they wanted and required parents to talk with their children, according to the investigation.

“Forsyth County Schools’ media centers provide resources that reflect all students within each school community,” the statement read. “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.” 

Later in January, the superintendent notified the school board that he was allowing the removal of books that were “obviously sexually explicit or pornographic.” Books were reviewed for “explicit sexual content, specifically graphic details of sexual acts and not just references to sex or sexual acts.” 

The school removed nine books indefinitely, with others removed from middle school libraries or removed temporarily, according to the investigation. The district did not tell students that it had removed explicit materials. 

The investigation found that students complained during a school board meeting about the removals.

“Some students also raised concerns about the impact of removing the books,” the investigation report found. “One student stated that the book ban immediately made the environment more harsh for students; people like him who are not in the closet are watching their safe spaces disappear, and he is sick of being fearful at school.”

“A third student – who characterized the District’s actions as singling out books by authors who are gay, supporters of the LGBTQI+ community, women and people of color – expressed the belief that the District does not care about diversity,” the report said. 

The district formed a summer review committee of 34 readers made up of school staff and parents and evaluated books based on six questions. Based on the findings, seven of the eight books were returned to shelves. 

“Other than comments at board meetings, District witnesses identified no other complaints from students, parents, staff or others about the book removal,” the report found. “All three District witnesses said the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals.”

The Office of Civil Rights alleges that the district “may have created a hostile environment for students” and that how it screened the books did not do anything to “ameliorate any resultant

racially and sexually hostile environment.”

The report acknowledged that the school district limited its screening to sexually explicit material, but concludes that “communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQI+ and authors who are not White, leading to increased fears and possibly harassment.”

In response, the Department of Education’s resolution agreement requires that the school district must make a statement to students explaining the screening process it relied on in 2022, which did not rely on “sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin or color of the book’s author or characters.” 

The statement must also include a “notice that any student who feels impacted by the environment surrounding the removal of books can contact the district’s Title IX/Title VI Coordinator for supportive measures,” as well as information on how to file a Title IX complaint. 

The district will also have to conduct a school climate survey in middle and high schools during the 2023-24 school year. 

This comes as schools nationwide consider whether to remove sexually explicit books from school libraries over parental and community objections.

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at bclarey@franklinnews.org.

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