The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has found that a Georgia school district’s removal of books featuring Black and LGBTQ+ characters may have created a hostile environment that violated students’ civil rights. As The Washington Post reports, the OCR’s decision could affect how other school districts and states manage book challenges going forward.
The OCR’s investigation into Forsyth County Schools came in response to a complaint alleging that the district had “discriminated against students on the basis of sex, race, color, and national origin” by removing 14 books from library shelves. The district removed them after receiving complaints from parents and members of the community about the books’ “explicit sexual content” and “LGBTQI+ subject matter,” according to a May 19 letter summarizing the investigation’s findings.
According to the OCR’s letter, in January 2022, the district’s Media Committee rejected multiple options to address parent complaints, including shelving LGBTQ+ books separately and putting stickers on them that would identify the books as LGBTQ+ inclusive. The committee concluded that such a measure could lead to bullying of students who checked out those books.
The committee also approved a statement to be posted on district media center websites reaffirming that “Forsyth County Schools’ media centers provide resources that reflect all students within each school community,” and urging parents to discuss material they found objectionable with their own children.
Ultimately, 14 books were either removed from library shelves or restricted to certain grade levels. In a January 24, 2022 email, the district’s Chief Technology and Information Officer made it clear that the books had been reviewed for sexual explicitness, not LGBTQ+ content.
But the OCR found that this was not the message students got about the removal the books, many of which were by LGBTQ+ or non-white authors or featured characters who were racially diverse or LGBTQ+-identified. At a February 2022 school board meeting, students spoke about the impact the book removals had had on them, with one student who identified as LGBTQ+ saying that he felt unsafe at school. According to the OCR letter, “District witnesses said the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals.”
The OCR found that while Forsyth County Schools was aware that its book screening process “may have created a hostile environment for students,” but its “responsive steps related to the book screening process were not designed to, and were insufficient to, ameliorate any resultant racially and sexually hostile environment.”
As a result, the district has entered into an agreement to resolve the issues raised by the OCR’s investigation. Forsyth County Schools will be required to issue a statement explaining the book removal process to students, including the fact that the books were not removed for their LGBTQ+ or non-white characters or authors.
The district will also have to offer supportive measures to students and administer a “climate survey” before the end of the first semester of the 2023–2024 school year to assess the prevalence of harassment based on sex, race, color, or national origin in the district’s middle and high schools, among other issues.
Bruce Fuller, who studies education policy at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Education called the ruling “a quiet shot over the bow against school districts that egregiously and without due process remove books from library shelves.”
“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,” Fuller told The Washington Post.
The U.S. has seen a drastic increase in attempts to ban books in the last couple years, driven largely by Republican politicians, conservative school boards, and so-called “parents’ rights” groups. About one-third of the 1,586 books banned from schools nationwide have LGBTQ+ themes and characters, according to a report from the free-speech organization PEN America.
The OCR is also investigating a Texas school district for removing LGBTQ+ books from shelves last year. In that case, the American Civil Liberties Union has argued that not representing students in schoolbooks constitutes discrimination. As The Washington Post notes, if the OCR finds in the ACLU’s favor, it could force school districts nationwide to make books featuring LGBTQ+ characters available to students.