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A Georgia school district's book bans may have caused a hostile environment, feds say

A school district's book screening process didn't violate civil rights laws — but it should have done a better job of handling the process, the U.S. Department of Education says.
Terry Vine
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A school district's book screening process didn't violate civil rights laws — but it should have done a better job of handling the process, the U.S. Department of Education says.

The Department of Education has found that a Georgia school district may have created a hostile environment for students by banning certain books from its libraries, the agency's Office of Civil Rights said.

In late 2021, several parents complained at school board meetings that Forsyth County Schools were carrying books with LGBTQ+ and sexually explicit content. Opponents of the bans said the district's book screening process deliberately left out non-white and LGBTQ+ authors, the Department of Education said in its memo released late last week.

The agency concluded the district limited its screening process to sexually explicit books and did not violate two laws governing institutions receiving federal aid: Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, and Title VI, which bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

But the Department of Education also said that if a sexually or racially hostile environment was created for students as a result of the process, the district did not do enough to alleviate those concerns.

When reached for comment, Forsyth County Schools told NPR Tuesday that it is "committed to providing a safe, connected, and thriving community for all students and their families," adding that it will continue following federal and state laws.

By implementing the federal agency's recommendations, the district added, "we will further our mission to provide an unparalleled education for all to succeed."

District media panel weighed several options

After receiving complaints about books, the school district's media committee got a request to allow parents to grant or deny permission for their child to read books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content, but the committee rejected that option, saying students would find a way to skirt the system, and librarians would have to play "the role of 'gatekeeper,' " the federal memo said.

The committee also denied suggestions such as keeping LGBTQ+ books in a separate area, or tagging them with a special sticker, as that could discourage students from using the media center and lead to bullying or harassment from other students.

In January of 2022, the committee approved posting a statement to the district's website that partly read, "Forsyth County Schools' media centers provide resources that reflect all students within each school community. If you come across a book that does not match your family's values and/or beliefs, and you would prefer that your child does not check that book out, please discuss it with your child."

Later that same month, District Superintendent Jeff Bearden authorized pulling books from school libraries that were deemed to be sexually explicit or pornographic. But the Office of Civil Rights says public comments at board meetings also mentioned gender identity, sexual orientation and diversity, leaving the impression that those qualities were included in the district's screening. The office said the district fell short in two ways: not telling students about its criteria and process, and not addressing the impact the book removals could have on students.

To resolve the issues, Forsyth County Schools reached a resolution agreement with the Department of Education that lays out a series of actions for the district, such as providing resources to those impacted by certain books' removal, posting the book screening process in "locations readily available" at middle and high schools and conducting a climate survey for middle and high school students.

"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," the Department of Education's Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said.

Residents speak out about books in schools

While the matter seems to be headed toward a resolution between the district and the Education Department, the roster of speakers at a recent Forsyth board meeting suggest that the debate over potentially banning more books isn't going away.

A resident who spoke toward the end of the May 16 meeting alleged that students were being sexualized and exposed to "anti-God ideologies," blaming a curriculum that she said was dictated by "Marxist corporations and people like Bill and Melinda Gates, and George Soros."

But a mother who spoke next disagreed, saying she moved to Forsyth so her two children could attend its strong schools. While she is open to discussing any books her children want to read, the woman said, she doesn't want principals and other senior school officials to spend their time vetting library books.

"We're allowing people who don't believe in this system to come in and destroy it," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.