Forsyth County Schools recently decided to remove eight books from all of its schools’ media centers after a review found they contained “sexually explicit content.”
This decision came after a parent notified Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden and the Forsyth County Board of Education of concerns they had with sexually explicit material they found in books offered at school media centers in the district.
Bearden asked school staff members to find and review any material they believed may contain explicit content. From there, staff came up with a list of 15 different books they reviewed.
Out of the 15 reviewed, they determined that these eight books should be removed from all FCS schools indefinitely:
“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson (1 copy at South Forsyth HS);
“Juliet Takes a Breath,” by Gabby Rivera (1 copy at South Forsyth HS);
“L8r, g8r,” by Lauren Myracle (1 copy at South Forsyth MS);
“Me Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews (1 copy at North Forsyth HS);
“Nineteen Minutes,” by Jodi Picoult (3 copies total at North Forsyth HS, West Forsyth HS and Forsyth Central HS);
“Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Perez (1 copy at Denmark HS);
“The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison (2 copies total at South Forsyth HS and West Forsyth HS);
“The Infinite Moment of Us,” by Lauren Myracle (1 copy Forsyth Central HS).
Communications Director Jennifer Caracciolo said these books make up a total of 11 copies in six out of the district’s 41 schools. Throughout the district, there are nearly 544,000 books available to students.
Of the remaining seven books reviewed, staff determined two books were safe to put back on media centers’ shelves — “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green and “Monday’s Not Coming,” by Tiffany Jackson.
Another book, “Check Please,” by Mgozi Ukazu, had already been challenged by a parent, staff member or Forsyth County resident and had been removed prior to this review. Caracciolo said there was previously one copy of this book available in one school’s media center.
The remaining four books were moved to only high school media centers:
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie;
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood;
“This One Summer,” by Mariko Tamaki;
“Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan.
‘Not about censorship’
Although the district stated this review was conducted to protect students from sexually explicit content, rumors mounted online over the past week as community members wondered if this sudden removal was in connection to a nationwide conversation around library censorship.
This conversation has made its way to Forsyth County in recent weeks as local political groups and organizations now call on the school system and Forsyth County Public Library to remove certain books from their collections, specifically targeting books with LGBTQ characters or themes and books discussing racism.
Caracciolo said that the district-wide review had no connection to the current controversy.
“For us, it’s not about censorship because, obviously, students and parents have the right to choose to read whatever they want outside of the school,” Caracciolo said. “They can purchase it or they can go to the public library. But we have a responsibility whenever it comes to sexually explicit content in the walls of our buildings.”
Additionally, she explained that the school system has a procedure and policy concerning the addition or removal of media center materials, and they are not able to remove books from a media center “simply because someone dislikes the ideas” they contain.
For now, officials with Forsyth County Schools are not planning to remove any other media center books on a district-wide level. At individual schools, however, the books are added or removed on an ongoing basis.
What the formal review process looks like
For a school to remove a book, it must be approved by its Local School Media Committee after a staff member, parent or Forsyth County resident formally processes a complaint called a “book challenge.”
This complaint would then initiate a review of the selected book by the committee, which is made up of school and media center leadership, teachers, a parent or community representative and, if at the high school level, a student representative.
Through this process, the committee looks at a list of criteria, including if the book supports curriculum standards, supports FCS and local school goals, is appropriate for the age or grade level of students, meets the needs of the school’s student population, provides a global perspective and promotes diversity, and more.
The committee also considers district policies, The Library Bill of Rights, intellectual freedom, The Freedom to Read and other contexts during the review.
If the committee decides on removal of the book, it is usually only removed from that individual school media center. If it does not decide on removal, the individual challenging the book also has the chance to challenge it through the District Media Committee.
This committee is responsible for “the development of media procedures” for the entire school district, according to board policy.
The latest District Media Committee meeting
Over the past few weeks, the District Media Committee has heard from a small group of community members about their concerns with the book challenge process and certain available books that feature LGBTQ characters.
These concerns were discussed at a recent committee meeting that Caracciolo said was unrelated to the district-wide removal of the eight books.
According to a meeting summary, the committee decided to amend board policy regulations, allowing 30 days for a local or district book challenge review with a possible 15-day extension. Before, the policy allowed 45 total days for the book review without an extension.
When discussing other issues, however, the committee decided not to amend board policies.
A major topic discussed was one parent’s call for the media centers to separate books containing LGBTQ characters or themes so students do not accidentally check these books out without knowledge of the books’ contents.
One solution suggested at the meeting was a possible beginning-of-the-year signature sheet where parents could opt in to allowing their child to check out books containing certain content.
The committee warned that this option “will not be the protection that it is hoped to be as there are multiple ways that students will be able to circumvent the system, [and] that it will put media specialists in the detrimental role of ‘gatekeeper’ of the books.”
Other options presented suggested physically separating or labeling LGBTQ books in media centers, which the committee disagreed with, stating that it would be “detrimental to students and may lead to increased bullying.”
Instead, the committee suggested that parents and students use Destiny, the software used to display FCS media centers’ catalog virtually. This way, students and parents can look through the catalog using certain tags to filter through available books. One of these tags does filter for LGBTQ books.
“If a parent finds a book in Destiny and it needs to be flagged, please contact your school and let us know that there is a flag missing,” Caracciolo said.
The committee concluded that the best way overall for parents to keep up with what their children are checking out at school is to get more involved in what they are reading and work together to create family-approved reading lists.
A statement has since been added to every media center webpage in the county, letting parents know how talking with their students about what they are reading “can positively affect their performance at school.”
“Reading creates such great family bonds — having a conversation about what you’re reading or reading a book along with your child,” Caracciolo said.
‘The entire Forsyth County community’
Outside of the recent meeting, school and district leaders have emphasized that books will not be removed based on individual personal or religious beliefs.
“It is the responsibility of Forsyth County Schools media centers to provide resources that reflect the culture and experiences of all students within each school community,” board policy states. “By providing access to a variety of materials, it is possible that a material may be considered offensive and/or controversial to a parent or community member.”
Although disagreements occur, Caracciolo said it is important for FCS media centers to have this variety of books and materials.
“If we have a large student population or we have a specific religion, we feel we need to reflect that in our book offerings,” she said. “We tell people if you come across a book in our media centers that does not match your personal values and beliefs and if you don’t want your child to check out that book, discuss it with your child.”
Forsyth County Public Library leaders have stressed the same values as they, too, have received concerns or objections.
Communications Manager Leslie Marinelli said the library system typically receives between zero and two Materials Objection forms every year, and recent objections have been directed at books intended for both children and adults for certain “sexual content, political views, profanity and/or LGBTQ+ characters."
“It is a common misconception that every book in a section of the library (i.e., easy, juvenile, teen middle, teen high) is appropriate for every child in that age group,” Library Director Anna Lyle wrote in a statement to the Forsyth County News. “Children have different maturity levels, reading abilities and interests. Parents have different opinions about the suitability of various topics for their children.”
Marinelli said patrons should always simply check out books that suit them and their families.
“We take our patrons’ concerns very seriously and have a well-defined, thorough process for listening to and addressing those concerns,” Marinelli said. “Our mission is to serve the entire Forsyth County community. What is offensive to one person might be interesting or important to someone else.”
For more information, visit the Forsyth County Public Library’s website at www.forsythpl.org.
For details on FCS media centers, visit the district’s website at www.forsyth.k12.ga.us.