Lawmakers considering a new process for banning books in schools

A textbook drop-off is seen at Northbrook Middle School in Suwanee, Georgia, in this July 8, 2020 file photo. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would revise the process for banning school library books and other materials. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)



A textbook drop-off is seen at Northbrook Middle School in Suwanee, Georgia, in this July 8, 2020 file photo. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would revise the process for banning school library books and other materials. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Georgia school librarians are alarmed by legislation that seeks to remove them from decisions about which books students can — or cannot — read at school.

Currently, the state board of education requires that every local board of education establish a school district media committee to review parent objections to books, videos and other materials, but Senate Bill 226 would impose a statewide template with others in charge and clear deadlines and transparency at the end.

Typically, school librarians who have graduate degrees in their field are involved in such decisions, but the legislation would force principals and ultimately school boards to lead the decisions.

The bill is backed by groups that think parents have little say over the books and websites presented to their children. They say the current process for reviewing books is too burdensome, but having principals or their delegates make the decisions on a tight timeline would streamline the process.

“The right for a parent to be heard I think is imperative,” said Cole Muzio, president and executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, during testimony in the Senate before that chamber passed the bill in early March. Other groups known for socially conservative agendas — the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and the Duluth-based Faith and Freedom Coalition — also testified for the bill.

A House vote on the bill could come in the last days of the legislative session, which ends Wednesday.

Amanda Lee, a school librarian in metro Atlanta, said her principal had to take time out from his work to review two such appeals. She thought he handled it well, but as president-elect of the Georgia Library Media Association she said her peers across the state are worried about how their own principals might handle such situations.

“I am worried that there are other principals who will simply bow to the pressure of a very vocal parent or group of parents and not go through a rigorous process, and we’re going to find books being banned on a much more regular basis,” said Lee, the librarian at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sent a letter Friday to Gov. Brian Kemp and the state House of Representatives about the legislation, saying “it threatens to chill the open exchange of ideas in Georgia schools.”

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, and Wendy Cornelisen, president of the Georgia Library Association, said their groups also oppose the bill.

Cornelisen said her group believes that communities should be free to set their own standards but that this legislation “puts in place a state-level process, which in my mind is the exact opposite of local control.”

Supporters of the bill appeared at the legislative hearings with parents who objected to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian classic by Margaret Atwood that has endured controversy over the years and was assigned in a class at Roswell High School.


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Noelle Kahaian read a rape scene to the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling it “garbage.” She noted that the book is now available as a graphic novel, making it more accessible to a juvenile audience. The other parent said her complaints were rejected by a panel of staff and parents that met in the school library.

At a follow-up hearing the next day, Kahaian said parents need an appeals process that is less “onerous” and intimidating.

“Every school district is exhibiting obscene materials to minors,” she said.

The School Library Journal calls the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” “a worthy adaptation of a legendary and award-winning novel.”

The bill’s chief co-sponsor, Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, did not return a call for comment, but said in a written statement that parents want a transparent process. He had said on the Senate floor that “a bunch of moms” and other parents came to him with their concerns and he realized that “there is some pretty bad stuff out there.” The former Paulding County school board member said in the committee hearings that he had worked with school boards on the bill.

The Georgia School Boards Association told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a written statement Friday that there are already mechanisms for parent concerns about these things, “therefore we are concerned with some of the language in the bill and are working to address these issues.”

Julia Bernath, president of the Fulton County School Board, said her school system has a process that allows parents to appeal to the school board, though it is a less direct path than the one in SB 226. She said that as far she knew the parent who had objected to “The Handmaid’s Tale“ at Roswell High School did not follow the appeals process through to the end.

Bernath is concerned about a “huge burden” on school districts that she thinks the legislation would impose.

SB 226 gives principals or their delegates seven business days to determine whether material appeals to “prurient, shameful, or morbid” interests of minors and is “lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” If the parent disagrees with the decision, it goes to the school board, which would have 30 calendar days to review the appeal.

If the board rejects the parent’s appeal, it would have 15 business days to post the material — for instance a passage from a book, a website or a film clip — on its website, where it would have to remain for four years.

Lee, the librarian, fears that school boards would take the path of least resistance and ban books that some find objectionable.

Her own principal overruled a complaint about the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“I think teenagers are absolutely prepared for that kind of content. I read ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ when I was in high school,” Lee said. “I think books give people a chance to process difficult topics.”