Opinion: Scary times for Georgia schools as politics stalk classroom

Neve Campbell stars in Wes Craven's "Scream 4," one in a series of popular teen horror movies. (Courtesy of MCT)

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Neve Campbell stars in Wes Craven's "Scream 4," one in a series of popular teen horror movies. (Courtesy of MCT)

Governor and lawmakers seek to constrict discussions, books around race, sexuality

With omicron on the loose in Georgia and the latest “Scream” flick in theaters, school employees are like that last teen in the horror film wandering around the empty house, wondering in dread if she’s the next to go. All of us watching know it’s just a matter of time.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the pandemic creating fear in school hallways. There’s another menace waiting around the corner — politicians willing to sacrifice schools to further political ambitions.

At the same time that Gov. Brian Kemp is wooing educators with raises, he’s undermining them by supporting politically driven bills that could ban books and restrict classroom discussions of race and racism.

Seeking a second term, Kemp faces a primary tussle with former Sen. David Perdue, fueling a smackdown over who’s more conservative. In his State of the State speech last week, Kemp announced he intends to rid schools of “divisive ideologies like critical race theory that pit kids against each other.”

Among the nightmare bills haunting this legislative session is House Bill 888, which promulgates the fable that schools are teaching the complex legal concept of critical race theory — untrue but being wielded as a hot poker to jolt conservative voters.

HB 888, the first of several anti-CRT bills expected this session, warns: “No public elementary or secondary school administrator, teacher, or other personnel shall compel or attempt to compel any individual to engage in or observe a discussion of any public policy issue.”

So much for classes on current affairs. Offending districts risk losing 20% of their state funding.

ExploreMetro Atlanta school board members oppose critical race theory bill

Lawmakers are also resurrecting legislation banning transgender girls from playing on female teams. Supporters earned an assist from Kemp, who vowed to “ensure fairness in school sports.”

“Fairness should never mean exclusion. Any blanket ban on trans youth participating in sports teams aligned with their gender is unfair and unnecessary,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth.

A recent survey by the Trevor Project found that LGBTQ youths in the South had 9% greater odds of a past-year suicide attempt compared to those in other regions of the country. “The Trevor Project’s research consistently finds that providing transgender students with access to affirming spaces, whether it be in the classroom or on the playing field, can prevent suicide. We encourage lawmakers to expand supportive services and affirming practices for transgender and nonbinary students, rather than use them as political pawns,” said Ames.

As with too many Georgia politicians, Kemp is willing to abandon his belief in local control of schools to seize a wedge issue. He now plans to address “obscene” materials in school libraries, following the lead of Texas, which is restricting how teachers can present instruction that references race and gender and challenging what books can be in school libraries.

A Republican legislator in Texas compiled a hit list of 850 books that he apparently felt could be inappropriate and asked superintendents in his state if any are in their school libraries. The titles range from the beloved children’s picture book “And Tango Makes Three,” a true tale about two male penguins who parent a baby penguin named Tango, to the acclaimed “Between the World and Me,” in which author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his teenage son about his experiences growing up in Baltimore’s inner city.

The list has already had a chilling effect on Texas schools. The North East Independent School District in Texas pulled 414 books from its online catalog and electronic audiobook app for review.

Banning books sends a clear message to our students that we don’t care about them, and we don’t respect their intellectual freedom,” said Cicely Lewis, who won 2019 Georgia Librarian of the Year and the national 2020 School Librarian of the Year for her success in getting more kids at her Gwinnett high school to love reading.

“I talk to librarians and classroom teachers who are scared to have these books in their library now,” said Lewis, a librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross. “Many who were empowered about championing diverse books have now decided to give up. The bill may not pass, but the damage is done. That is the effect of this plan to ban books. They want us to be scared. They want us to give up. They want us to feel defeated.”

And with the pluck required of a heroine whether in movies or politics, Lewis pledged, “Every time I get tired, I think about my students and my own two children, and I get right back up and continue fighting because all students deserve to have representation in literature.”