“This trend is not only deeply harmful, but it’s also unlawful.”
The Biden administration is conducting a first-of-its-kind federal investigation into book banning by a school district, stepping up its response to nationwide right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ people and the libraries and schools that seek to create a welcoming environment for the community.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has opened an investigation into Granbury Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as NBC News, ProPublica, and The Texas Tribune first reported Tuesday.
The district was the subject of a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) earlier this year regarding school superintendent Jeremy Glenn’s order that school librarians remove 130 titles from library shelves–“one of the largest mass book removals in the state,” according to NBC News.
Nearly 75% of the books that were flagged for removal had LGBTQ+ characters or plot themes, said the ACLU of Texas.
“Public school districts cannot discriminate against students on the basis of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” said Chloe Kempf, an attorney with the group, in a statement Tuesday. “By choosing to open this investigation in response to our complaint, the federal government is signaling that remedying discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students is a top priority and that school districts cannot deny students the right to be themselves in school, be it through book bans, discriminatory comments, or other harmful policies.”
After the initial book removal, a committee of teachers and community members reviewed the titles and found that eight were “sexually explicit and not age-appropriate” and should be permanently removed. Two of the books had LGBTQ+ themes.
Two members of the committee filed a police report in May accusing the school district of distributing “pornography” to children. The case was still open as of August, NBC reported Tuesday.
The DOE’s investigation, which Granbury school officials were first notified about on December 6, centers on the question of whether the district violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, sex, or gender.
The probe comes as right-wing lawmakers and commentators have waged numerous attacks on the rights of LGBTQ+ people–from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law banning school discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, to state laws banning gender-affirming medical care, to a push by groups like Moms for Liberty to limit students’ access to books about LGBTQ+ people’s experiences as well as racism in the United States.
The American Library Association reported in September that in the first eight months of 2022, parents and community members across the country issued 681 complaints about the content of books in schools and libraries and “challenged” 1,651 different titles–more than the number of challenges that were recorded in all of 2021.
Last month, dozens of parents in Keller, Texas, also in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, spoke out against their school district’s policy of banning any book that discusses or includes transgender or nonbinary characters.
“Granbury ISD’s book ban is part of a statewide trend of school districts targeting their LGBTQ students,” said the ACLU of Texas on Tuesday. “This trend is not only deeply harmful, but it’s also unlawful.”
BREAKING: @EDcivilrights is investigating Granbury ISD after we filed a civil rights complaint about anti-LGBTQIA+ comments made by school officials and their removal of books with LGBTQIA+ themes from the school library.— ACLU of Texas (@ACLUTx) December 20, 2022
Texas, take note. Prejudice has no place in our schools. pic.twitter.com/LrqxT4uz4P
In the ACLU’s complaint about Granbury’s policy earlier this year, the group noted that in addition to telling librarians to remove certain books, Glenn denied the existence of transgender and nonbinary people in comments he made to the library staff, and said that because Granbury is a conservative town, people in the LGBTQ+ community should “hide it.”
“These comments, combined with the book removals,” Kempf told The Texas Tribune, “really send a message to LGBTQ students in the districts that: ‘You don’t belong here. Your existence is shameful. It should be censored.'”
Lou Whiting, a nonbinary student at Granbury High School, expressed relief at the news that the Biden administration was investigating the district, months after President Joe Biden condemned right-wing lawmakers for “trying to score political points” by banning books.
“It’s just really good to hear that there are people who are listening to us and actually doing something about it,” Whiting told the Tribune.