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Investigators say Forsyth book bans may have created ‘hostile environment’ for students


Investigators say Forsyth book bans may have created ‘hostile environment’ for students

May 30, 2023 | 1:00 am ET
By Ross Williams
Investigators say Forsyth book bans may have created ‘hostile environment’ for students
Forsyth County Schools may have created a hostile environment for students with discussions about banning books, the U.S. Department of Education says. Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Education has directed Forsyth County middle and high schools to collect data on racial and gender-based harassment after an investigation found the district’s book bans may have created a hostile environment for some students.

“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,” the department found in a report.

Early last year, the district’s chief technology and information officer emailed district principals a list of nine books to be removed from all school libraries – one of which had been removed in 2021, two books to be removed temporarily or restricted to high schools, and four books to be restricted to high schools. The email said the books had been authorized for removal based on sexual content, not because of LGBTQ+ or racial themes.

School libraries have landed front and center in recent culture war clashes. The American Library Association reports attempts were made to censor more than 2,500 titles in libraries across the country in 2022, more than any year since the association began tracking 20 years ago. Of the reported book challenges, 58% were in school libraries, and the majority of titles were by or about people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community, the ALA finds.

And while past censorship attempts focused on individual books, 90% of last year’s attempts focused on multiple titles, with 40% challenging 100 or more books, pointing to organized groups attempting to remove titles.

As Forsyth residents debated last year, state GOP lawmakers passed a suite of bills they said are intended to give parents more say in what their children are taught in schools. Democrats said the changes were unnecessary and would allow small groups of parents to shape lessons based on their political beliefs. This year, House lawmakers unanimously passed a bill aimed at preventing students from accessing obscene materials on school devices, but the bill did not receive a vote in the Senate before the session closed.

At a February Forsyth County school board meeting, multiple parents and students spoke about the book bans, with many parents calling for more books to be removed. Most comments focused on content parents found objectionable, with some reading descriptions of sex acts aloud from the podium, but the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that some comments focused on removing books for reasons related to gender identity or sexual orientation.

“CRT, DEI, SEL, or any other name you give it is not harmless,” said one speaker. “You all have the responsibility to be ethical and truthful to parents and the community. No more lies, such as ‘DEI’s purpose is to teach children that there are different cultures that eat different foods. Really? No more ‘we didn’t know this was in the curriculum.’ No more allowing hundreds of books that promote and instigate – which means cause – cause transgenderism, homosexuality, racial division, pedophilia, violence and pornography to line the shelves of Forsyth County schools, libraries, and classrooms. Do you think it’s healthy for 8-year-olds to be exposed to books which encourage transgenderism, sexualization and masturbation?”

Schools have considerable leeway to regulate what students are exposed to in class, said Clare Norins, a member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s board of directors and director of the University of Georgia School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic.

“But that being said, when it comes to a school library, the school needs to tread more lightly because the library is there for students to have choice about what they’re exposed to, and no one’s requiring them to read any particular books in the library. It’s up to the individual student to explore and self-educate,” she said. “So when it comes to school libraries, we have some good case law that says schools can’t be banning books just because they don’t like the ideas or the viewpoints expressed in the books, that there has to be some other reason.”

Shivi Mehta, one of several Forsyth County students who spoke against the bans, said she’s heard comments from parents in-person and online that give her the impression many were out to ban viewpoints they did not like.

“I’ve heard parents say, like, ‘Oh my God, they’re making our kids gay. I don’t want that for my child,’ and you can tell just by the nature of that statement, it’s rooted in homophobia,” she said. “And you can hear people say, ‘Racism isn’t real. We don’t need to be talking about it.’ And to hear things like that and to see people testify based on those assumptions or claims, that’s when you know it’s not about books. It’s about discrimination and inequity as a whole in our society, because I can tell you, as a South Asian person, I’ve experienced racism. I can tell you it’s a very real thing.”

Over the summer, the district formed a committee of teachers, parents and library specialists to review the eight books identified for permanent removal from all schools. That panel ended up voting to allow schools to return seven of the eight books to library shelves, the exception being “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a 2020 memoir by writer George M. Johnson about growing up Black and queer, which contains memories of Johnson’s first sexual experiences. The American Library Association says “All Boys Aren’t Blue” received the most challenges of any book in 2022 save one, “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe in graphic novel form about young life outside the gender binary.

The federal Department of Education acknowledged that the district limited its screening process to sexually explicit material and that the committee “rejected suggestions to handle challenged books in ways that it believed would target certain groups of students,” but found that the district received notice that the process may have created a hostile environment for students and did not take steps to address it.

“Indeed, one student commented at a District school board meeting about the school environment becoming more harsh in the aftermath of the book removals and his fear about going to school, and evidence OCR reviewed to date reflects other students expressing similar views,” the report found. “District witnesses reported to OCR that the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals. In light of these communications and actions, OCR is concerned a hostile environment may have arisen that the District needed to ameliorate.”

Mehta said she was studying for her math final when she got a text about the ruling.

“I’m happy that they definitely took the words of students who are in our schools 180 days a year for six, seven hours a day so seriously,” she said. “Because oftentimes, we’re excluded from these conversations. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve been excluded from so many conversations about issues regarding our schools, because I’m dismissed as too young or not mature enough to understand when these are issues that are very real.”

Under the terms of the feds’ agreement, the county will post signs outside middle and high school libraries stating that the book review focused on explicit sexual content and not the author or characters’ racial or gender identity and information for students who feel impacted by the removal of books or want to file a complaint about discrimination or harassment.

They will also be required to administer a school climate survey before the end of the fall semester addressing the prevalence of harassment and discrimination in middle and high schools.

School systems across the country will be paying attention to this case, Norins said, but it’s not clear how big a factor it could be when considering their own potential bans.

“It at least puts schools on notice that if they start removing books that are about LGBTQ issues or about racial issues, they run the risk of being accused of creating a hostile environment for students that identify with those groups,” she said. “Nobody wants to be investigated by the Department of Education. I think there’s a slight deterrence factor there.”

“But the settlement terms were pretty weak, I think,” she added. “So the school has to do some surveys and post some announcements. There’s no real teeth to the settlement agreement, so is that really going to deter schools from removing books? I don’t know.”

But students will also be organizing and paying attention to the results of the survey and what goes on in board meetings, Mehta said.

“If there are pressing issues, if there are issues that concern us, if we see things like a book ban or something like that that are really alarming decisions that our school board is making or really important conversations that the school board is having, that we believe that we should have a hand in, I think we’ll see students starting to testify and mobilize their peers to get out there and say something or do something,” she said.