Forsyth may have created ‘hostile environment’ with book ban review

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Forsyth County Schools has agreed to communicate directly with students about the way it processed demands to remove library books, after the federal government decided the system might have created a “hostile environment” for some of its kids.

The district in north metro Atlanta became a lightning rod for controversy over books after parents and others flooded school board meetings to demand the removal of numerous titles. They said they were concerned about sexually explicit content, but many of the books were by authors of color and were about race, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Forsyth officials removed eight books from middle and high school library shelves in January 2022, including “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s acclaimed debut novel. The following August, after an in-depth review, the district restored seven of the books but only on high school shelves. The district permanently removed the eighth book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer.

The temporary removal for review was ordered by Superintendent Jeff Bearden after parents complained about explicit sexual content and also about LGBTQ+ subject matter.

Despite being notified that some students felt they were under attack, Forsyth’s messaging and other reactions “related to the book screening process were not designed to, and were insufficient to, ameliorate any resultant racially and sexually hostile environment,” the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights wrote in a letter Friday to Bearden.

Forsyth headed off the potential for a court case by agreeing to a resolution with the federal government.

The resolution says the district will, in consultation with the Office of Civil Rights, communicate to middle and high school students that the book removals were based on sexually explicit content rather than on the sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin or color of the book’s author or characters.

Federal law prohibits exclusionary and discriminatory practices based on these characteristics for any school that accepts U.S. funding under Title VI (race) and Title IX (gender).

There were other stipulations that boil down to Forsyth clearly communicating that it promotes diversity and will address concerns of any students who feel otherwise, with clarity on the process for expressing concerns. About half the students in Forsyth — the state’s fifth-largest school district — are non-white.

The district “is committed to providing a safe, connected, and thriving community for all students and their families,” a Forsyth spokeswoman said in a statement Monday. “Our district will continue to follow Federal and State laws, and local Board policies and procedures, for media center materials.”

The upheaval in Forsyth was part of a national trend to silence authors writing about race and gender issues, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book challenges nearly doubled last year to more than 1,200 nationally, she said, much of them in the form of organized campaigns where one group presents a school system with a long list of titles.

The campaign is marginalizing students who identify with books based on either content that reflects their lives or on the identity of the authors, Caldwell-Stone said. “It is sending an explicit message to students who are part of those groups that they don’t belong and their books don’t belong.”

James Liming, a transgender student who just graduated from Forsyth’s Denmark High, said he doesn’t think the district intended to create a hostile environment for kids like him.

”But even if that wasn’t the plan it did happen, so I think it’s good that action is being taken to combat it,” said Liming, who was profiled in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the growing book banning movement in January 2022.

“I hope this isn’t just something that’s going to get brushed off,” he added.

Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, said the government was concerned Forsyth might have broken the law, but the resolution ended the investigation — for now.

“Our concern was that the district had information that students were experiencing a hostile environment based on race and based on sex, related to the book removals, and that the actions that the district took in response weren’t designed to, and were not enough, to ameliorate any resultant hostile environment for the students,” Lhamon said, adding that her office will oversee Forsyth’s agreement to resolve the matter until all issues are addressed.

It is unclear how long that will take. Lhamon said her office just this year resolved a hostile environment case initiated 10 years ago.