The federal government has concluded that removing books with Black and LGBTQ+ characters from a Georgia school district might have created a hostile environment for students, violating their civil rights.
According to a letter released Friday by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Forsyth County Schools pulled nearly a dozen books in 2022 due to complaints from parents.
The district north of Atlanta agreed to provide “supportive measures” and conduct a school climate survey for students affected by the removal of books according to a resolution agreement.
Some parents and community members expressed concern about library books that they believed provided sexually explicit content to students. Also, as a result of a request from a parent group, the district has shelved LGBTQ+ books separately in school libraries.
In addition, communication at district school board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including LGBTQ+ authors and authors who are not white, leading students to express concerns about the impact of the book removals.
OCR received a complaint alleging that the district’s removal of library books created an environment that was racially and sexually hostile to students. According to OCR, all complaints within its jurisdiction are investigated, and this investigation was resolved based on specific facts in this district. Typically, schools and other libraries have policies concerning what books they offer to their members; this district’s policy not only didn’t raise Title VI or Title IX concerns but explicitly ensured that students in this district received diverse and inclusive reading materials.
According to a press release, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon is glad Forsyth County Schools is taking appropriate action.
“I thank Forsyth County Schools for assessing and responding to the needs of the students who may have felt subjected to a hostile environment as a result of the library book screening process and for ensuring that, going forward, it will take appropriate action regarding acts of harassment that create a hostile environment based on sex, race, color or national origin,” she said.
The outcome in Georgia may impact how other states and school districts handle book removal requests. Books are being taken from libraries and classrooms at an unprecedented rate in schools, according to advocacy groups. These challenges are commonly aimed at books dealing with race, racism, and LGBTQ+ characters and themes.
The Office for Civil Rights of the Education Department is investigating a Texas school district after it pulled books with LGBTQ+ content last year. In that lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint alleging that the non-representation of students constitutes discrimination. Districts nationwide may be required to stock more LGBTQ-related titles if the ACLU prevails.
Managing director of PEN America’s Washington, D.C. office, Nadine Farid Johnson, celebrated the education department’s news in a statement to The Advocate.
“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,” Johnson said. “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.”
She added, “Districts are on notice.”