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Teachers Are Fighting Book Bans and Unjust Firings in Courts and State Houses

Under attack from the right, teachers are resisting with legislation, grassroots organizing and lawsuits against bans.

Karla Hernandez-Mats (center), president of United Teachers of Dade, leads in chanting slogans against book banning as marchers arrive at Books and Books in hope of bringing awareness to Florida's book banning, on October 1, 2023.

Kasey Meehan, director of the Freedom to Read program at PEN America, likens the ongoing fight against legislation intended to restrict what teachers can teach to a game of whack-a-mole.

“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors to ramp up harmful bills against educators and librarians,” she told Truthout. While she says that a wide array of so-called “parent’s rights” groups — in addition to well-known organizations like Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education — newer groups like the explicitly Christian organization Mama Bears Rising are continuing to push book bans and censorship and are attempting to restrict what students are exposed to in public school classrooms.

“The goal is to build mistrust and distrust among public school parents that will disrupt public education,” Meehan told Truthout. “Their agenda relies on stoking parental fears about the corruption of children and the end of childhood innocence.” This, she explained, is why right-wing rhetoric has turned from opposition to books about the role of race and racism in United States history to language about children reading “obscene” or “pornographic” materials in school.

But the tide may be turning as a variety of resistance tactics are on the rise. These tactics include lawsuits against book bans and censorship, complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by librarians fired for violating book display restrictions, the introduction of legislation at the state and federal levels to protect educators from arbitrary firings, and grassroots organizing by new and established groups to support inclusive curricula.

Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken notice, conceding in February that groups like Moms for Liberty (groups he referred to as “bad actors”) had filed a slew of frivolous legal challenges to books they deemed “offensive,” including dictionaries and encyclopedias, as well as fiction, nonfiction, biographies, science and anatomy texts.

Moreover, in mid-March his administration agreed to a legal settlement that allows teachers to discuss gender and sexuality with students, stipulating that this is permissible as long as the topics are not part of what the settlement describes as “official instructional materials.” The settlement also sanctions school-based gender and sexuality alliances and limits outside groups from filing challenges to curricular content. Going forward, the settlement also mandates that only parents whose children are enrolled in a particular school can file objections to books or other subject matter.

National Education Association Steps Up

The National Education Association (NEA), a union representing approximately 3 million educators, is front and center in fighting back. They are, for example, championing middle school English teacher Alyson Browder and several other Iowa Education Association members, publisher Penguin Random House, a parent, a student, and censored authors, including Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo and Jodi Picoult in a federal lawsuit to overturn legislation passed in May 2023 to ban books “with any description of sex” from K-12 classrooms and keep books on sexual orientation or gender identity out of kindergarten through sixth-grade schoolrooms.

In December 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher granted the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block these bans, calling them “incredibly broad” and “unlikely to satisfy the First Amendment under any standard of scrutiny.” The case is currently winding its way through the courts.

Litigation has also been filed in Georgia in a case that pits the Georgia Association of Educators and teachers Katherine Rinderle and Tonya Grimmke against the Cobb County School District, the district superintendent and members of the Board of Education. According to a complaint filed in February, the plaintiffs are challenging “vague censorship policies” regarding how teachers and school staff can “actively and openly” support “their LGBTQ students.”

These policies followed the 2022 passage of the Protecting Students First Act by the Georgia legislature. According to the complaint, the act prohibits instructors from espousing personal political beliefs concerning “divisive concepts” such as race, racism, gender identity or sexual preference. A concomitant Parents Bill of Rights, also enacted in 2022, states that school workers cannot infringe on parents’ rights regarding the upbringing of their children or their moral or religious training.

Rinderle found herself in the crosshairs of these policies after purchasing Scott Stuart’s My Shadow Is Purple at a February 2023 Scholastic Book Fair sponsored by the Due West Elementary School, where she taught fifth grade. Each morning, the complaint reports, she had a community-building meeting with her students and often gave them a choice of books they’d like to listen to her read aloud. Shortly after the fair, they selected My Shadow Is Purple, a book about a child whose shadow is a different color from the shadows of the rest of their family. While the book offers an implicit message about the importance of showing kindness to nonbinary children, it doesn’t explicitly mention sexuality, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Nonetheless, a parent complained about the selection, and Rinderle was subsequently required to appear before a three-member tribunal. Although the tribunal voted in support of Rinderle, she was put on administrative leave in March and terminated in August.

Co-plaintiff Grimmke teaches special education at Birney Elementary School and alleges that state policy changes have not only hampered her ability to teach but have hampered her students’ ability to learn in a safe and inclusive classroom.

NEA Staff Counsel Danielle E. Davis told Truthout that, if successful, the case will undo “a perfect storm” that resulted from organizing by homophobic and transphobic “parents’ rights groups” and passage of laws by state legislators that were meant to stifle discussion of complex social issues. The upshot, she said, has been the creation of “a hostile work environment for educators and a hostile learning environment for students.” She added: “Teachers are afraid to speak to their principals, afraid to talk to each other, and there is an overwhelming sense of fear and intimidation throughout public education in the state. This has led to a lot of self-censorship by teachers.”

And even though Rinderle is the only teacher who has been fired, Davis says her termination has had a silencing effect on everyone, from instructors to paraprofessionals to administrators.

Self-Censoring Hurts Students

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney and case co-counsel Michael J. Tafelski told Truthout that students have no way to know what they’re not learning. “How do you know if your teacher is self-censoring?” he asks. “When I go to school board meetings, I frequently have folks come up to me and tell me that they voted for school board members because they thought they would improve the schools. But seeing them impose book bans has changed their political views. People want education to be inclusive, and they want their kids to have access to books. They’re saying ‘enough.’”

What’s more, Tafelski stresses that the Cobb County case is bigger than Rinderle and Grimmke. “At the end of the day, Katie Rinderle wants the county she grew up in, the county she worked in, to provide kids with extensive educational materials,” he told Truthout. “She wants students to learn compassion and empathy, and she wants Cobb County to stop weaponizing race, sexuality and gender identity.”

Many in the community are rallying behind her. Melissa Marten, a parent and co-founder of the four-year-old Cobb Community Care Coalition, is working to build welcoming classrooms for students of all races and sexualities, and healthy work environments for instructors.

“We’ve been a constant presence at monthly school board meetings since 2020,” she said, noting that the coalition has repeatedly called for new district leadership since the current superintendent has opposed transparency and has sidelined his opponents. “Katie Rinderle went before the tribunal like the district asked her to, and they voted not to fire her. But the district terminated her anyway. This is indicative of the superintendent’s lack of regard for process,” she said.

Marten is also concerned about the extent to which teachers are self-censoring. “After Katie was fired, we saw book shelves covered over in some classrooms or books taken out of classrooms completely. Some schools have a Mystery Reader program in kindergarten and first grade where a parent used to be able to come in and read a book to the class. We used to just sign up for a slot and read whatever we wanted to read. Many schools are now saying that books need to be vetted beforehand. Everyone is uncertain about everything. There’s fear.”

PEN America’s Kasey Meehan agrees that censorship, book bans and firings have had a chilling impact on teaching and learning. There have also been multiple firings. In addition to Rinderle in Georgia, several educators and librarians have been fired in Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. “On the one hand,” she said, “this has limited dissent, but on the other, litigation, legal advocacy and organizing have increased community awareness of these issues. This led to the 2022 and 2023 defeat of most conservatives running for school boards in every corner of the country.” Nonetheless, she says that work in statehouses to defeat “divisive concepts” restrictions and “parental rights” legislation remains imperative.

The majority of parents agree with her. An NEA survey conducted in August 2023 found that the top concerns of parents with kids in public school are school funding, teacher pay, school shootings, insufficient mental health supports and staff shortages — not what books are read to their children, what books are found in school libraries, or what books are discussed in class.

Another key issue for parents is the cost of the challenges, estimated to be $3,000 per book. The Fight Book Bans Act is an attempt to address this. The bill was introduced in the House in December by sponsors Maxwell Frost (D-Florida), Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Frederica Wilson (D-Florida) and seeks $15 million over five years to enable school districts to put up a robust fight against censorship and bans. The bill is currently in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. It does not yet have a Senate companion.

But Frost, Raskin and Wilson are continuing to push on this high-stakes issue. At risk, they say, is our ability to read and be exposed to views that expand our world and the world of our children. Between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, there were more than 3,300 attempts to ban books in public school classrooms. This involved 1,557 titles by 1,480 authors, translators and illustrators, a 33 percent increase over the previous year. Forty percent of the bans took place in Florida, followed by Texas, Missouri, Utah and Pennsylvania. Among the most frequent targets: Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Looking for Alaska by John Green, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe.

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