The Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said in a letter sent on Friday that book bans implemented last year by a school district in Georgia may have violated students’ rights.
OCR recognized that Forsyth County School District, which banned a number of books containing LGBTQ themes and characters of color, was already implementing corrective actions to address the apparent violations. But the office said that additional actions were necessary, including obtaining a better understanding of whether students felt their rights had been violated and giving students resources to make complaints to OCR in the future.
The book bans appeared to violate the Title VI and Title IX protections afforded to students throughout the country, according to the letter from OCR to Forsyth County School District.
In its letter, OCR said that more should be done to ensure that those affected by the book bans had their rights restored.
Requisites for demonstrating that the rights of students have been violated include showing that a district created a hostile environment for students based on race, color, national origin, gender or sex; that officials were aware of the hostile environment that was created; and that authorities took no action in correcting the situation.
The actions — and indeed, inaction — by Forsyth County School District seem to demonstrate that those requisites were met.
In January 2022, the district banned eight titles and placed two titles on a temporary ban in response to complaints from parents over the inclusion of books depicting LGBTQ characters in school libraries. At the time, Superintendent Jeff Bearden claimed that the titles removed were “obviously sexually explicit or pornographic.”
An examination of those titles found that they included “The Bluest Eye,” written by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
Following the book bans, students within the district spoke out at a school board meeting, noting that the bans limited representation of marginalized groups. LGBTQ students and students of color — including Asian American students — said at that meeting that there weren’t enough books for them to relate to. Some of the students said that the banning of books made them feel fearful or unsafe at school.
Ultimately, the district decided to return seven of the eight banned titles to the schools’ library bookshelves.
Sometime between then and the beginning of this year, the complaint to OCR was lodged. Thus far, the identity of that person has not been made public.
The complaint alleged that, even though most of the books were returned, there were still issues that had to be resolved within the school district, as no other actions had been taken to address students’ and parents’ concerns.
“District witnesses reported to OCR that the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals,” the letter from OCR said. “In light of these communications and actions, OCR is concerned a hostile environment may have arisen that the District needed to ameliorate.”
The district must take corrective actions, outlined under a resolution agreement that the district has agreed to, OCR said in its letter.
The district must, for example, post a formal statement, made available to middle and high school students, that explains its original decision-making standard for the books it banned last year. That statement needs to include “an acknowledgment that the environment surrounding removal of books may have impacted students,” OCR said.
The district is required to provide students with instruction on how they can file complaints in the future if they feel that they are not being treated fairly under the law. It must also provide access to the proper online forms for doing so.
The district will also administer a “school climate survey” in the next academic school year to allow students to answer questions regarding their civil rights.
EveryLibrary, a library advocacy group, championed the agreement between OCR and Forsyth County School District.
“The Office for Civil Rights’ findings in this matter are clear,” the organization said in a statement. “Forsyth County School District violated the civil rights of both racial and sexual minorities in removing the books from the school library.”
The decision could also have implications for districts in other parts of the country that try to impose similar book bans, said University of California School of Education professor Bruce Fuller in an interview with The Washington Post.
“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 said.
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