Landmark Civil Rights Agreement Over Book Bans in Forsyth County (GA) Schools

EveryLibrary applauds the Office for Civil Rights at the UD DOE for issuing Title IX and Title VI Resolution Agreement and Finding Letter about the Forsyth County School District's book bans and school library censorship.

EveryLibrary applauds the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for pursuing an investigation of the Forsyth County School District in suburban Atlanta, GA. regarding Title IX and Title VI violations over book bans, censorship, and their impacts on minority students in the district.

According to their press release and public filings, on May 19, 2023, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) posted a Letter detailing the outcome of its investigation along with an official Resolution Agreement for the district to follow over the next academic year. Through the first half of 2022, the District pursued a policy to remove books with both LGBTQ and BiPOC themes, characters, and stories. With the release of the Letter and Resolution Agreement, we see clearly that the removal of books from Forsyth County School libraries - combined with a continued hostile rhetorical environment for racial and sexual minority students - violated students' civil rights.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex or gender. Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. For almost 18 months, the Forsyth County School District has been at the center of a contentious book banning fight. Titles with LGBTQ themes and the stories of BiPOC characters have been censored and removed while the school board and administration have created a hostile educational climate for students. This civil rights complaint is an important milestone that will reestablish a culture of respect for all students while ensuring that the district refrains from future categorical book bans.

The Office for Civil Rights' findings in this matter are clear. Forsyth County School District violated the civil rights of both racial and sexual minorities in removing the books from the school library, and the “District’s media center book screening process may have created a hostile environment for students.” The OCR Letter states that “[T]he 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” (emphasis added). As detailed in the Letter and in the Resolution Agreement, book bans, the communications about why books were being removed, and the ongoing rhetoric by district leadership about LGBTQ and racial issues constituted a violation of the students' civil rights. OCR states that “Prior to the completion of OCR’s investigation, the District agreed to resolve the issues of this investigation” and that the Resolution Agreement is not an admission of guilt by the school district.

According to the OCR letter, while the district focused on removing books with LGBTQ themes, “[C]ommunications 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.” In an article from June 2022 citied in the OCR letter, a sophomore who self-identified as a brown, female person, said “this is something that affects me,” while highlighting another quote by a senior stating, "I'm openly queer, openly transgender, and so it really hits close to home when people are like, let's not have diversity." Another student said the school environment grew “more harsh in the aftermath of the book removals and his fear about going to school [increased]”. It appears that this politicized rhetoric about the content of school library books contributed to OCR’s findings about discriminatory behavior.

EveryLibrary has been proud to support the Forsyth County Education Coalition (FC4ED), a group of local parents, education stakeholders, and activists, as they campaigned to oppose these book bans and support their students. Prior to the investigation, advocates with the Forsyth County Education Coalition advocated restoring the books and respecting students. Coalition stakeholders spoke at school board meetings, organized direct actions, supported teachers and students, and talked to the media about their concerns. Their statement of principles was a rallying point for concerned community members. While the Coalition has continued its campaign to reform District policies, it also appears that OCR’s investigation into Title IX and Title IV violations was a key factor in changing the behavior of the school district.

Book Bans as Civil Rights Violations

When a school fails to safeguard students from discrimination appropriately – or when the school administration is itself the originator of discrimination - the Office for Civil Rights intervenes by investigating the issue and enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws that protect minority students. All public and private K-12 schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving federal funding must comply with Title IX and Title VI anti-discrimination laws. In a case like the Forsyth County School District, the combined impact of removing library books with BiPOC and LGBTQ+ characters and themes, along with the egregious on-the-record rhetoric and actions by board members and administrators, created a hostile environment for minority students. Minority students are a marginalized and particularly vulnerable class. Thus, it is clear that book bans targeting racial groups or LGBTQ+ characters, themes, and viewpoints have a disparate impact on minority students. Students, particularly students of minority racial, sex, or gender identity status, suffer an adverse impact from targeted book removals.

Book bans and censorship create a hostile educational environment for students. Title IX and Title VI both prohibit conduct that is so severe and pervasive that it creates a “hostile environment” which effectively denies some students equal access to an educational program. The investigation into Forsyth County School District over Title VI and Title IX complaints is noteworthy because it may be the first of its kind to become public. According to reporting in the Washington Post, there is an active investigation into potential Title IX violations over book bans at the Granbury ISD in Texas. The ACLU of Texas originated that complaint as well as one at Keller, ISD. According to this May 8th update, it appears that OCR is only currently investigating Granbury ISD. EveryLibrary will be watching with great interest as that investigation proceeds.

It is important to note that the US Department of Education is in the process of finalizing new rules that make it “clear that preventing someone from participating in school programs and activities consistent with their gender identity would cause harm in violation of Title IX.” The proposed regulation would prohibit all forms of sex discrimination, including discrimination based on sex stereotypes, sex characteristics, pregnancy or related conditions, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 

Anti-Discrimination Laws and School Libraries

Since the beginning of these highly politicized and performative attempts to ban books in late 2021, EveryLibrary has been clear in calling out these actions and naming them for what they are: proxy attacks on people and populations, especially LGBTQ and communities of color. As our colleagues at PEN America recently reported, book banners overwhelmingly continue to target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. In the first half of this school year, 30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color and 26% of unique titles banned have LGBTQ+ characters or themes. This reality is not disconnected to our country's broader social and political issues.

The Office for Civil Rights maintains information about how to file a complaint about the behavior of a school or district. Concerned parents, students, and school library stakeholders should understand and exercise their right to file a complaint. As we can see from the Forsyth County Resolution Agreement, investigations by the Department of Education can lead to an intensive oversight process, and non-compliance can ultimately result in a loss of funding. Investigations like Forsyth County School District bring justice for affected students and should be seen as a deterrent to banning books and removing materials from other school libraries. EveryLibrary applauds the Office for Civil Rights for enforcing anti-discrimination policies and statutes, especially in the emerging issues around book bans and censorship.

If you are in a school district or public library where book bans and censorship are weaponized against students, residents, or the library staff, please contact EveryLibrary for a confidential conversation about how we can help you fight back and win. 

EveryLibrary provides free digital organizing resources like Fight for the First and supports long-term campaigns like the Forsyth County Education Coalition and other Library Alliances. Our assistance includes coaching and guidance for local organizers, help with digital and real-world actions, media relations, fundraising, and coalition building. Our donors enable us to put advertising dollars behind every campaign call-to-action to ensure it breaks through the noise.