Local activist groups react to DOE decision on FoCo school district’s book banning

Justine Lookenott

The Forsyth Coalition for Education protests the removal of books from Forsyth County School librariesPhoto byeverylibrary.org

(Forsyth County, GA) Local activist groups reacted to the U.S. Department of Education’s findings that the Forsyth County School’s initial banning of several books may have violated students’ civil rights by creating a “hostile” environment.

The department’s decision came after a year of controversy surrounding the banning of the books – a move that was later reversed by the school district. The department’s Office of Civil Rights announced its decision on Friday, May 19.

In a resolution agreement, the school district agreed to resolve the issue by doing the following:

  • “Issuing a statement to students in the District explaining the book removal process and offering supportive measures to students who may have been impacted by the book removal process”
  • “Administer a climate survey of the student bodies at each of the District’s middle and high schools to assess whether additional steps need to be taken”

The Forsyth Coalition for Education was one of the main groups fighting against the book ban. Member Becky Woomer said they met with the school board after the books were banned to voice their concerns over the move, ultimately getting seven of the eight books back on school shelves.

She was “very pleased” with the OCR’s investigation result but said she has to give the school district credit for knowing they had made a mistake by removing the books in the first place.

“I think by meeting with them, we were able to say ‘listen, you guys have a good policy in place for media challenges and where you went wrong was you jumped over that policy in taking the books away. So let's follow that policy, submit the books to your review process and see what happens' and that's what they did,” Woomer said. “… and since then, I think we have given them the realization that the parents who want these books challenged and banned are actually a noisy minority and there is a much larger group in the county who doesn't want their schools hijacked by those extreme views.”

Students for DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) was another group that had been vocal against the bans. High school students Ryan Liming and Shivi Mehta are both members who spoke at the Board of Education meetings.

Both students said many of the explicit scenes read at the meetings by those opposed to the books were taken out of context and dealt with sexual assault, something they believe could be educational on the topic.

“There isn't any needless sexual content,” Liming said. “There's only stuff that is educational, helping people understand [that] even if it's not something you’ll tell someone, you're not alone in this experience that is happening.”

While the OCR acknowledged that the district only banned books related to explicit content, concerns over books containing characters and storylines related to the LGBTQIA+ community were also expressed by some parents.

“A lot of times those advocating against keeping these books in our libraries say that it features LGBTQIA+ characters and that’s quote-unquote making our kids identify as LGBTQIA+, which is completely homophobic and just so deeply bigoted and that's not what these authors are trying to do,” Mehta said.

Both students, Mehta as a Southeast Asian and Liming as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, said they felt the bans did create more “hostile” environments like the investigation found.

“Specifically, the people at the meetings for sure genuinely scared me at times at those meetings,” Liming said. “I was also hearing that school librarians were getting these angry emails about the books and it's not really a thing they can control and it made me feel super uncomfortable at school because it's like, I'm already a queer person in a school in Forsyth County and adding something that can fuel more fire made me really freaked out.”

Mama Bears of Forsyth County was the main group fighting for the books to be removed. Members would read explicit content from the targeted books out loud at Board of Education meetings to protest the books being allowed in school libraries.

The group recently won a lawsuit against the district concerning free speech after one of the members was forced to stop reading at one of the Board of Education meetings. Members won settlements of $17.91 each to signify the year 1791, when the First Amendment protecting free speech was ratified.

Member Cindy Martin said that, in her opinion, the CRO investigation was not about books.

“This is about the federal government using bullying tactics against our school system to indoctrinate our children into LGBTQ ideology,” Martin said. “The OCR resolution clearly states that Forsyth County Schools did not violate Title VI or Title IX. Yet, they are being forced to post notices in all of our middle and high schools that they do not discriminate against gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation which are not components in the civil rights law. Students will also be administered a ‘Climate Survey’ with the results being given to the federal government, so they can continue to find ways to infiltrate the public school system with their radical agendas. This was never about books.”

While the Forsyth Coalition for Education and Students for DEI have not been that active in the book controversy since the books were returned to schools last year, Woomer and the students said they most likely will become active again if another related controversy comes to light.

In the meantime, Martin said Mama Bears will be continuing their cause against the books.

“We will continue to help FCS [Forsyth County Schools] clean up the libraries and in turn advocate for high quality literature that promotes successful adulthood,” Martin said. “We will also continue to be active in the school system to protect our children from any social or political agendas. Schools are to educate, not indoctrinate.”

The OCR investigation results letter to the district can be found here and the resolution agreement letter here.

If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Justine Lookenott at justine.lookenott@newsbreak.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @justalookenott.

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I cover local news in Forsyth County, GA. My debut into the writing world began at the age of 10 when I won an essay contest in Around Acworth Magazine in which I wrote about spending the summer with my pet goat, Eclair. Since graduating from Kennesaw State University, I have been published in several newspapers and magazines in the Atlanta area including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlanta School Guide, What Now Atlanta, Newcomer Magazine, the Marietta Daily Journal and the Cherokee Tribune.

Forsyth County, GA

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