A Georgia school district may have violated its students’ civil rights by removing certain books from its libraries, creating a “hostile environment” for students based on race, sex or national origin, said the United States Department of Education.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights was investigating whether Forsyth County Schools had violated students’ rights, and announced a settlement on Friday.
In a letter to the superintendent of Forsyth County Schools, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said that in the fall of 2021, the district began receiving complaints from some parents that material in the library was sexually explicit or had L.G.B.T.Q. content. The district eventually responded by removing some books. The debate concerning the books’ removal left some students feeling targeted, said Catherine E. Lhamon, the education department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
The district took steps to “try to adhere to a nondiscriminatory policy,” she said, but those steps were not sufficient to address the hostile environment.
“When they removed books, there was a lot of discussion in the school community about which books would be removed, and it looked like the books being removed were by and about L.G.B.T.Q.I.+ people, and by and about people of color,” Ms. Lhamon said. “Students heard that message and felt unsafe in response.”
The Education Department said that the district agreed to take certain steps as part of the settlement, including conducting a survey of students about their school environment and submitting to ongoing monitoring by the Office for Civil Rights.
In a statement, Jennifer Caracciolo, a spokeswoman for Forsyth County Schools, said the district “is committed to providing a safe, connected and thriving community for all students and their families. With the implementation of the O.C.R.’s recommendations, we will further our mission to provide an unparalleled education for all to succeed.”
The Education Department’s involvement in Georgia marks a significant step in the Biden administration’s efforts to address book removals, and highlights the degree to which book bans have become a potent national political issue. Recently, President Biden referred to book bans as a new threat to Americans’ freedoms in a video announcing his campaign for a second term.
“As we’re seeing this issue of book removals and book bans surging around the country, it’s important to remind every school community that they have a federal civil rights obligation to not operate a hostile environment based on the race or sex of their students,” Ms. Lhamon said. “We are prepared to enforce those laws.”
For the past two years, free speech organizations have tracked a spike in book bans across the country, fueled by a growing and organized movement to remove books on certain subjects from school districts and libraries.
PEN America has counted more than 4,000 instances of book removals since it began tracking bans in July 2021. A recent report from the American Library Association found that efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year, and reached the highest levels that the organization has seen since it began gathering data on book bans more than 20 years ago. Most of the targeted books are titles that feature L.G.B.T.Q. themes and characters, or works that address race and racism, both organizations found.
Opponents of book removals have expressed alarm not only over the sharp rise in bans, but in the methods that are being used to challenge books. Whereas in the past, book challenges often came from concerned parents, many are now coming from the organized efforts of conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United, or from statewide legislation that has made it easier to get titles removed.
In recent months, a counter movement by those who oppose book removals has started to take shape. In Llano, Texas, a federal judge ordered the county to restore 17 banned books to its library, after a group of residents sued the county and library officials, arguing that the book removals were unconstitutional and violated citizens’ First Amendment rights.
In Illinois, the legislature has passed legislation that would withhold grant funding from libraries that remove books, or refuse to adopt a policy against book banning.
Last week, PEN America and the publisher Penguin Random House, along with a group of authors and parents, filed a lawsuit against a Florida school board and district over book removals.
“Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, said in a statement about the suit. “The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution.”