The Forsyth County Conundrum
One of the most damning arguments against school districts removing books from their libraries is that they include classic books by brilliant authors to which no rational person could object or find any “explanation” other than racial or sexual discrimination. But what if the book in question was removed from a school library because it had legitimate questionable sexual content?
Sure, some, like the publisher of Teen Vogue, would argue that no such thing exists, but some parents, teachers and school board members might have a legitimate basis to argue that such content was not appropriate or a school library. That was the scenario in Forsyth County , Georgia, where eight books were taken off the shelves.
On May 19, it said that the Forsyth County Schools’ removal of 8 books (7 of them temporarily) from a school library, which admittedly did not “target” minority groups, potentially created a hostile environment in violation of the federal laws Title VI (which bans racial discrimination) and Title IX (which bans sexual discrimination), and thus could constitute discriminatory harassment.
If the removal had no connection to discrimination, but was solely related to legitimate sexual content, wasn’t that within the school board’s authority? Nope, said the DoE Office of Civil Right. Not if causes someone to feel…something.
After a school board meeting where parents largely sought a broader ban on books beyond sexual content, while students argued that the books that involved sexual content related to LGBTQ+ sex, such as a book describing boys performing oral sex on each other, the district put together a committee to decide which, if any, of the eight books in issue should be removed.
The District formed a summer review committee to review eight of the nine books identified for indefinite removal from all schools in the CTIO’s January 24, 2022 email. The summer review committee was called upon to determine if the books should remain on the shelves despite the explicit sexual content. The summer review committee, which included teachers, media specialists and parents, consisted of 34 readers. The committee included persons of color; District staff did not inquire if anyone was part of the LGBTQI+ community.
The committee determined that seven of the eight be returned to the shelves, leaving only one book to be removed. That proved one too many for OCR.
In early August, the District Media Committee voted to return seven of the eight books to media center bookshelves. The books were placed in their original locations; they were not placed in special sections or shelves, marked with stickers, tagged or otherwise identifiable for specific content, characters, or authors.
Other than comments at board meetings, District witnesses identified no other complaints from students, parents, staff or others about the book removal. All three District witnesses said the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals.
Despite the district’s efforts, a complaint was made to the Department of Education that the district created a “hostile environment” under Titles VI (racial discrimination) and IX (sexual discrimination).
OCR has a concern the District received notice that its media center book screening process may have created a hostile environment for students, yet the District’s responsive steps related to the book screening process were not designed to, and were insufficient to, ameliorate any resultant racially and sexually hostile environment.
What could they have possibly done wrong here?
OCR recognizes the District Media Committee rejected suggestions to handle challenged books in ways that it believed would target certain groups of students and that the District posted a statement on media centers’ websites that they “provide resources that reflect all students within each school community” and that “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.” OCR also recognizes the District limited its book screening process to sexually explicit material.
So the district did everything possible to not discriminate, and even OCR concedes that the screening was limited to “sexually explicit material.”
Nonetheless, communications 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. 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. District witnesses reported to OCR that the District has not taken steps to address with students the impact of the book removals. In light of these communications and actions, OCR is concerned a hostile environment may have arisen that the District needed to ameliorate.
Despite there being no discriminatory intent nor discriminatory outcome, a student(s) felt the school environment becoming “more harsh” and had “fear about going to school,” and the district took no steps to “address” student impact. Whether there was any rational basis for this fear is unmentioned and what steps could have possibly been taken remains a mystery. But the district was wrong.
While it may well be that students felt a hostile environment because of some commentary by parents at school meetings prior to the formation of the committee, but they were entitled to express their views to the school board just like anyone else, students’ feelings notwithstanding.
As for the removal of sexually explicit books, the district is now caught in OCR’s Catch-22. Failure to remove sexually explicit books can create a hostile environment for staff under Title VII,* and so must be removed, while the removal of books can also create a hostile environment under Title IX. Essentially, no matter what actions are taken by a school board, they’re wrong.
For example, in Stair v. Lehigh Valley Carpenters, a judge found a union liable for sexual harassment solely because its girlie calendars created a hostile environment for a female worker who saw them in her workplace.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has repeatedly sued employers that permitted sexually explicit magazines or displays in their workplaces, arguing that a hostile work environment can be created even absent intentional discrimination based on sex.