School Book Bans – Creating “Hostile Environment” Under Title VI and Title IX?

Last month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced the resolution of a complaint of discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color and national origin under Title IX and Title VI. The complaint alleged that Forsyth County Schools created a hostile environment for students based on sex, race, color, or national origin when books were removed from schools.

In Fall 2021, Forsyth received complaints from parents that students could access library books that “parents deemed inappropriate.” Parents identified books that contained “explicit sexual content” and “LGBTQI+ subject matter” and asked the District to store the books in a separate section within the school libraries.  During a District Media Committee meeting, committee members discussed how to approach these concerns. The committee considered, but ultimately rejected, a policy that would require students to get a parent’s permission before checking out a book that contained LGBTQI+ or explicit content. The committee also decided not to shelve LGBTQI+ books separately over concerns that “those actions would be detrimental to students [and] might lead to increased bullying.” After these meetings, the Committee released a statement encouraging parents to talk with their children if the child is interested in a book “that does not match your family’s values and/or beliefs” and if “you would prefer that your child does not check that book out.”

On January 21, 2022, the school board was notified that the Chief Technology and Information Officer had been authorized to remove library books that were “obviously sexually explicit or pornographic.” The books, however, were not reviewed for “LGBTQI+ content.” According to OCR, nine books were removed for an indefinite period, two books were removed temporarily, and four were removed from middle schools and placed in high schools. But, according to witnesses, Forsyth did not communicate with the student body about the removals.

The following month, parents, students, and community members expressed concerns about the removals to district officials, including the Superintendent. Parents reiterated their concerns and asked for more books to be removed. Students shared their concerns about the “impact or removing books” and discussed how gender identity, sexual orientation, and race are present in a book’s content and authors. Some students said the removal of books directly affected how they felt at school. One student said it “immediately made the environment more harsh for students” and students who are “not in the closet are watching their safe spaces disappear.” Another student (who identified as Asian) said it was challenging for her to find books with “main characters who are of her race” and knew other minority students felt similarly and felt like banning books “silences mainly minority voices.”

After hearing these concerns, Forsyth formed a committee to review the books that were set to be removed to determine whether they should instead remain accessible to students. According to OCR, each book was examined for its quality, content, age appropriateness, whether it “met District students’ instructional, social and personal needs,” and whether it provided a “global perspective and promoted diversity.” After the committee’s review, seven of the books were returned to their original locations and were not marked with any tags about the book’s content. OCR also noted that while Forsyth received no additional complaints about the removals outside the school board meeting, witnesses said Forsyth did not address the removal’s impact with students.

Ultimately, OCR concluded that Forsyth “received notice” that the book screening process increased fears of harassment for students but the steps taken “were not designed to, and were insufficient to” eliminate a hostile environment on the basis of race or sex. Because Forsyth did not take steps to “ameliorate” the impact of the removals, OCR concluded that Forsyth may have created a hostile environment in violation of federal civil rights laws. Under the resolution agreement, Forsyth agreed to offer supportive measures to students who were impacted by the removal process and explain the book screening process to students. The District is also required to administer a climate survey of middle and high school students to assess the overall climate and environment.

The influence of parental pressure on the content of materials available in school libraries and classrooms has become a hot topic in education. Subsequent to this OCR resolution agreement, in a June 8 White House press release, it was announced that OCR will be appointing a coordinator role to “address the growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students” and to provide training to school districts on how book bans may “create a hostile school environment” in violation of federal civil rights laws.  Moving forward, school districts need to be cognizant of the message sent to students when certain books are removed from shelves, so as to not create a hostile environment in violation of Title VI or Title IX.