A school district in Georgia may have created a “hostile environment” for students when it removed books that featured LGBTQ+ and Black students from its K-12 libraries, a civil rights investigation by the Education Department concluded – marking the first time the federal government has taken action against the book banning effort underway in conservative states.
Notably, the investigation concluded that the process for removing the books, which included negative public comments from parents about gender identity, sexual orientation, diversity and critical race theory, likely “increased fears and possible harassment” of students – and did not simply address the fact that the books were removed.
“Communication 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 Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights investigation concluded. “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.”
In Fall 2021, Forsyth County schools, just outside Atlanta, began receiving complaints from some parents and community members about students’ access to library books that they deemed inappropriate, including books with explicit sexual content and about LGBTQ+ subject matters. According to the investigation, a parent group also asked the district to shelve books about LGBTQ+ issues and those that include LGBTQ+ characters separately in school libraries and to place tags on the books.
Shortly thereafter, in January 2022, the district superintendent authorized the removal of books “that were obviously sexually explicit or pornographic,” and that included “specifically graphic details of sexual acts and not just references to sex or sexual acts.”
But at a school board meeting a month later, some parents rallied around the removal of additional books, clashing with students who said the removal of the books created a “harsh environment” for them at school, eliminated safe spaces for marginalized students and made them feel as though the district does not care about diversity. As a result, the district convened a months-long review of the books removed over the summer, resulting in seven of the eight books that were removed being reinstalled in libraries.
The Office for Civil Rights investigators concluded that beyond the process creating a potentially hostile environment, that the district also did little to help students who were negatively impacted.
“District witnesses reported to OCR that the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals,” the investigation continues. “In light of these communications and actions, OCR is concerned a hostile environment may have arisen that the District needed to ameliorate.”
The resolution, among other things, requires Forsyth to notify students of its book review process and survey students next fall to ask about harassment based on race and sex and whether they feel comfortable reporting it.
“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,” Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement.
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The settlement comes as districts are in the process of reviewing library books to comply with a slate of new laws in Republican-controlled states that limit students’ access to stories about race, gender identity and LGBTQ issues.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights also has an investigation open into the Granbury Independent School District in Texas, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint last year alleging Title IX discrimination in the wake of its removal of books with LGBTQ themes.
Earlier this year, House Democrats urged the Education Secretary Miguel Cardon and Lhamon to continue taking action against states and districts that violate federal laws as they seek to ban certain books and revise curriculum in ways that could be harmful for students.
“In the wake of the recent uptick in book banning, curriculum censorship, whitewashing of history, and denial of any discussion of race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation in classrooms, these policies violate students’ first amendment rights, civil rights protections, and the ability to access and obtain a quality education,” they wrote in a letter in March.
As it stands, more than a dozen states have laws that limit the way educators can teach about race, diversity and inclusion, and a handful of others limit what they can teach about LGBTQ issues, sex and gender identity. At least a dozen more are considering such measures.