Freedom to read advocates are applauding a final report and resolution agreement from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that could help blunt the surge of book bans in schools.

In a May 19 letter and resolution agreement, DOE officials concluded that the Forsyth County (Georgia) School district’s removal of books largely featuring Black and LGBTQ characters created a potentially “hostile environment” for students, in violation of their civil rights. And in a potentially landmark resolution agreement, the district agreed to work with the DOE to address student discrimination issues arising from the book bans.

“OCR [The Office for Civil Rights] has a concern the District received notice that its media center book screening process may have created a hostile environment for students, yet the 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,” DOE officials wrote in delivering the findings of an investigation stemming from student complaints. And while the investigation suggested that Forsyth County officials somewhat attempted to address student concerns in evaluating the book challenges in question, “communications 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.”

To resolve the OCR’s concerns, the district agreed to a resolution in which school official have committed to:

  • Issue a statement to students in the district explaining the library book removal process and offering supportive measures to students who may have been impacted by the process.
  • Carrying out a student “climate survey” to assess whether additional steps need to be taken.
  • And, ongoing monitoring “until OCR is satisfied that the federal laws at issue are satisfied.”

In a statement, assistant secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon thanked Forsyth County School officials agreeing to the resolution, for “responding to the needs of the students who may have felt subjected to a hostile environment” as a result of the library book screening process, and for “ensuring that, going forward, it will take appropriate action regarding acts of harassment that create a hostile environment based on sex, race, color or national origin."

communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters...leading to increased fears and possibly harassment.

In a press statement, a Forsyth schools spokesperson said the district’s agreement with to OCR would “further our mission to provide an unparalleled education for all to succeed.”

The OCR initiated the investigation in Forsyth county in March 2022, after receiving complaints regarding the school’s removal of books that were allegedly inappropriate, and it comes in the midst of nationwide, politically driven surge in book challenges and legislation threatening the freedom to read. Currently, the OCR is also probing a similar complaint in Texas, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in July, 2022, alleging that Granbury ISD officials told librarians to remove books that included the LGBTQ community and people who are transgender.

In a post on its website, officials at EveryLibrary called the OCR decision "an important milestone" in the ongoing fight against book bans.

"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," the post explains. "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."

EveryLibrary officials say such investigations should be seen as "a deterrent to banning books and removing materials" from other schools and 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."