You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Book removals may have violated student civil rights, Education Dept. says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/22/2023 Hannah Natanson, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff
© iStock/iStock

In a move that could affect how schools handle book challenges, the federal government has concluded that a Georgia school district’s removal of titles with Black and LGBTQ characters may have created a “hostile environment” for students, potentially violating their civil rights.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released its findings in a letter Friday wrapping up its investigation into Forsyth County Schools’ 2022 decision to pull nearly a dozen books from shelves after parents complained of titles’ sexual and LGBTQ content. To resolve the investigation, the district north of Atlanta agreed to offer “supportive measures” to students affected by the book removals and to administer a school climate survey, per the letter.

Forsyth schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo wrote in a statement Monday that the district’s “implementation of the [department’s] recommendations … will further our mission to provide an unparalleled education for all to succeed.”

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a statement she is pleased that Forsyth County Schools is taking “appropriate action regarding acts of harassment.”

The outcome in the Georgia case could affect how administrators in other districts and states manage book-removal requests. It comes as the country faces a historic rise in attempts to pull books from school libraries and classrooms. The majority of such challenges — which began to spike shortly after the coronavirus pandemic ignited culture wars in education — target books that deal with race, racism, and LGTBQ characters and themes, the American Library Association and free-expression advocacy group PEN America have repeatedly found.

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is separately investigating a Texas school district for yanking books with LGBTQ content last year. The outcome of that case, based on a complaint filed by the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, will determine the validity of the ACLU’s novel legal argument that not representing students in schoolbooks can constitute discrimination. If the Biden administration finds in the ACLU’s favor, it could force districts nationwide to stock more titles featuring LGBTQ characters.

The Georgia ruling, although less far-reaching in its implications, is “a quiet shot over the bow against school districts that egregiously and without due process remove books from library shelves,” said Bruce Fuller, who studies education policy at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Education. “When students are struggling with these issues of identity, and you ban books that are speaking to these kids, that does appear to violate the spirit of the letter of the civil rights law.”

The Education Department’s investigation into the Forsyth district — which involved the examination of school documents, interviews with top school personnel and a review of public board meeting records — was based on a complaint alleging that the January 2022 removal of books created a “racially and sexually hostile environment for students,” according to the department. It remains unclear who filed the complaint and when. Caracciolo, the Forsyth spokeswoman, said she did not know the timing of the complaint but that the district was first contacted by the Education Department in March.

Before the book removals, Forsyth parents had complained about school library titles they deemed inappropriate because of sexually explicit content, according to the department’s letter.

Some parents also complained about books with LGBTQ “subject matter” and asked the district to shelve those books separately in the libraries and “place tags on” those titles, per the letter.

The district ultimately removed eight books indefinitely and two temporarily, according to the letter, and it limited four titles to high schools. Superintendent Jeff Bearden told the school board that the books being yanked “were obviously sexually explicit or pornographic,” according to the letter.

Of the books listed for removal, three center on characters of color and one on an LGBTQ protagonist, according to a Washington Post analysis. The nixed titles include “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, the Forsyth County News reported and Caracciolo confirmed.

At a subsequent school board meeting, students spoke against the removals, the letter states. A student of Asian descent said she struggled to find books with Asian main characters. Another student, who said he was LGBTQ, said the removals made him feel fearful and unsafe at school.

That summer, the district returned seven books to the library after a committee of 34 teachers, media specialists and parents reviewed the titles and recommended their return. But the district did not take “steps to address with students the impact of the book removals,” according to the Office for Civil Rights letter.

To establish that students’ civil rights were violated, the letter states, the department had to unearth evidence that the Forsyth district fostered a hostile environment based on “race, color, or national origin”; that district officials knew about that hostile environment; and that authorities took no steps to fix the situation.

In the letter, investigators also took the district to task for the way school representatives addressed the topic at board meetings.

“Communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are [LGBTQ] and authors who are not white,” the department’s letter states.

John Chrastka, head of library advocacy group EveryLibrary, wrote in an email that the Education Department’s letter sends a message to school districts nationwide that they must “[minimize] categorical bans” of books about LGBTQ individuals and people of color.

But “the fact that it takes a civil rights complaint to bring this to the forefront is a shame,” Chrastka wrote.

Under the resolution agreement, the Forsyth district must post a statement, available to all middle and high school students, explaining its decision-making on last year’s book removals. The statement must specify that books were not pulled because of the sex, gender, race or sexual orientation of their characters — and it must include “an acknowledgement that the environment surrounding removal of books may have impacted students.”

The statement also has to provide students information about how to file discrimination and harassment complaints under federal law, and it must assert that the district will take “appropriate action” to remedy acts of harassment. The statement must be submitted to the Education Department for review by July 31.

Additionally, per the agreement, the district must administer a “school climate survey” at middle and high schools before the close of the first semester of the upcoming school year. The district must also assemble a working group to assess the survey’s findings and make recommendations on how to reduce incidents of harassment on campus.


More From The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon