School library book bans are seen as targeting LGBTQ content
Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb. 18, 2023. In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles. (Jefferee Woo/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
By Scott Mcfetridge, Anthony Izaguirre And Sara Cline in Des Moines
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Teri Patrick bristles at the idea she wants to ban books about LGBTQ issues in Iowa schools, arguing her only goal is ridding schools of sexually explicit material.
Sara Hayden Parris says that whatever you want to call it, it’s wrong for some parents to think a book shouldn’t be readily available to any child if it isn’t right for their own child.
The viewpoints of the two mothers from suburban Des Moines underscore a divide over LGBTQ content in books as Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds pushes an especially sweeping crackdown on content in Iowa school libraries. The bill she’s backing could result in the removal of books from school libraries in all of the state’s 327 districts if they’re successfully challenged in any one of them.
School boards and legislatures nationwide also are facing questions about books and considering making it easier to limit access.
“We’re seeing these challenges arise in almost every state of the union,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It’s a national phenomenon.”
Longstanding disagreements about content in school libraries often focus this year on books with LGBTQ themes as policymakers nationwide also consider limiting or banning gender-affirming care and drag shows, allowing the deadnaming of transgender students or adults in the workplace, and other measures targeting LGBTQ people.
The trend troubles Kris Maul, a transgender man who is raising a 12-year-old with his lesbian partner in the Des Moines area and wants school library books to reflect all kinds of families and children. Maul argued that those seeking to remove books take passages out of context and unfairly focus on books about LGBTQ or racial justice issues.
LGBTQ people are more visible than even five years ago, Maul said, and he believes that has led to a backlash from some who hope limiting discussion will return American society to an era that didn’t acknowledge people with different sexualities.
“People are scared because they don’t think LGBTQ people should exist,” Maul said. “They don’t want their own children to be LGBTQ, and they feel if they can limit access to these books and materials, then their children won’t be that way, which is simply not true and is heartbreaking and disgusting.”
In Louisiana, activists fear a push by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry to investigate sexually explicit materials in public libraries — and recently proposed legislation that could restrict children and teens’ access to those books — is being used to target and censor LGBTQ content.
Landry, who is running for governor, launched a statewide tip line in November to field complaints about librarians, teachers, and school and library personnel. Landry released a report in February that listed nine books his office considers “sexually explicit” or inappropriate for children. Seven have LGBTQ storylines.
In Florida, some schools have covered or removed books under a new law that requires an evaluation of reading materials and for districts to publish a searchable list of books where individuals can then challenge specific titles.
The reviews have drawn widespread attention, with images of empty bookshelves ricocheting across social media, and are often accompanied by criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican expected to run for president.
The state’s training materials direct the reviews to target sexually explicit materials but also say that schools should “err on the side of caution” when selecting reading materials and that principals are responsible for compliance.
Florida’s largest teachers union is challenging the law, arguing its implementation is too broad and leading to unnecessary censorship. An education department spokesperson did not immediately comment.
DeSantis said the state has not instructed schools to empty libraries or cover books. He said 175 books have been removed from 23 school districts, with 87% of the books identified as pornographic, violent or inappropriate for their grade level.
The Iowa legislation comes amid efforts there to keep a closer eye on public school curriculums and make taxpayer money available to parents for private school tuition. Reynolds, the governor, has made such proposals the core of her legislative agenda, telling a conservative parents group that their work was essential to guarding against “indoctrination” by public school educators.
Under a bill backed by Reynolds, the titles and authors of all books available to students in classrooms and libraries would be posted online, and officials would need to specify how parents could request a book’s removal and how decisions to retain books could be appealed. When any district removes a book, the state Education Department would add it to a “removal list,” and all of Iowa’s 326 other districts would have to deny access to the book unless parents gave approval.
At a hearing on Reynolds’ bill, Republican lawmakers, who hold huge majorities in both legislative chambers, said they might change the proposal but were committed to seeing it approved. The bill has passed a Senate committee and is awaiting a floor vote.
“The parents are the governing authority in how their child is educated, period,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair. “Parents are responsible for their child’s upbringing, period.”
Patrick, a mother of two, expressed befuddlement about why anyone would want to make sexually explicit books available to children.
“I have to believe that there are books that cater to the LGBTQ community that don’t have to have such graphic sexual content in them,” said Patrick, a member of a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that has gained national influence for its efforts to influence school curriculum and classroom learning. “There are very few books that have ever been banned and what we’re saying is, in a public school setting, with taxpayer-funding money, should these books really be available to kids?”
Hayden Parris, a mom of two from a suburb only a few miles away, understands the argument but thinks it misses the point.
“A kindergartner is not wandering into the young adults section and picking out a book that is called like, “This Book is Gay,” said Hayden Parris, who is leading a parents group opposed to Iowa’s proposed law. “They’re not picking those books, and the fact that they can pick one out of several thousand books is not a reason to keep it away from everyone.”
Sam Helmick, president of the Iowa Library Association, said communities should decide what’s in their libraries and that it’s important for children to have access to books that address their lives and questions. Helmick didn’t have that ability as a child, and students shouldn’t return to that time, she said.
“Can we acknowledge that this will have a chilling effect?” Helmick asked. “And when you tell me that books about myself as an asexual, nonbinary person who didn’t have those books in libraries when I was a kid to pick up and flip through, but now publishing has caught up with me and I can see representation of me — those will be behind the desk and that’s not supposed to make me feel less welcome, less seen and less represented in my library?”
Izaguirre reported from Tallahassee, Florida, and Cline from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Latest GOP 2024 hopeful DeSantis ‘blazing a trail’ on book bans in Republican-controlled states
Florida last year became the first in a wave of red states to enact laws making it easier for parents to challenge books in school libraries they deem to be pornographic, deal improperly with racial issues or are in other ways inappropriate for students.
Books ensnared in the Florida regulations include explicit graphic novels about growing up LGBTQ+, a children’s book based on a true story of two male penguins raising a chick in a zoo and “The Bluest Eye,” a novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison that includes descriptions of child sexual abuse. Certain books covering racial themes also have been pulled from library shelves, sometimes temporarily, as school administrators try to assess what material is allowed under the new rules.
The day before DeSantis entered the presidential race earlier this week, a K-8 school in Miami-Dade County put the poem “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman on a restricted list for elementary students after a parent complained. The reasons for the objection to the poem, which Gorman read during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, were not clear. The book version remains available to the middle school students, but Gorman criticized the decision to restrict it for younger grades, saying it robbed “children of the chance to find their voices in literature.”
While efforts to ban books or censor education material have come up sporadically over the years, critics and supporters credit DeSantis with inspiring a new wave of legislation in other conservative states to regulate the books available in schools — and sometimes even in public libraries. The number of attempts to ban or restrict books across the U.S. last year was the highest in the 20 years the American Library Association has been tracking such efforts.
EveryLibrary, a national political action committee, said it’s tracking at least 121 different proposals introduced in state legislatures this year targeting libraries, librarians, educators and access to materials. The group said 39 of those proposals would allow for criminal prosecution.
“He really is blazing a trail,” said Tiffany Justice, the Florida-based co-founder of the conservative parents group Moms for Liberty, whose members have filed challenges to books in libraries in several states. “What Ron DeSantis does that I think is effective is he uses all the levers of power to make long-term change happen.”
“Other governors,” Justice said, “are paying attention and following suit.”
In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law, set to take effect this summer, that could impose criminal penalties on librarians who knowingly provide “harmful” materials to minors. The law also would establish a process for the public to challenge materials and ask they be relocated to a section minors can’t access.
“It’s a perverse world when we’re talking about trying to criminalize librarians,” said Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, which is expected to sue over Arkansas’ law.
In Indiana, school libraries will be required by July 1 to publicly post a list of books they offer and provide a complaint process for community members under a law Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed this month. In Texas, a bill creating new standards for banning books from schools that the government considers too explicit has been sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
In Oklahoma, the state school board has approved new rules that prohibit “pornographic materials and sexualized content” in school libraries and allow parents to submit formal complaints. The rules still must be approved by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
DeSantis insists books aren’t actually being “banned” in his state’s schools, preferring to call the forced removal of some books “curation choices that are consistent with state standards.”
“There has not been a single book banned in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a live appearance on Twitter Wednesday when he announced his campaign. He later said “our mantra in Florida is education, not indoctrination.”
Librarians, free speech advocates and some parents and educators say the push is driven by a small, conservative minority that happens to have outsized clout in Republican primaries, like the one DeSantis is now competing in.
“This is all part of his plan to run for president, and he believes his vilification of books and what’s happening in public schools is his path to the presidency,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s main teachers union.
Kasey Meehan, who directs the Freedom to Read program at the writers’ organization PEN America, said that, when books are targeted in Florida, they later become the subject of complaints filed by parents in other states.
“It’s something that continues to cause alarm for individuals who are advocating for the freedom to read or for a diversity of knowledge, ideas and books to be available to students across the country,” Meehan said.
PEN earlier this month sued the Escambia school district in Florida over the removal of 10 books, including “The Bluest Eye” and “Lucky,” a bestselling memoir by Alice Sebold about her rape when she was 18 years old.
There have been challenges to books in schools for decades — “The Bluest Eye” has been targeted in various states for years, long before DeSantis became governor. But the restrictions accelerated in Florida after DeSantis signed bills last year barring discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, a ban that has since expanded through 12th grade. He also created a mechanism for parents to challenge books in school libraries and has targeted how race is taught in Florida schools.
Many teachers and districts complain that the laws’ standards are so vague they don’t know what books might place them in legal jeopardy.
Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach, said new rules compelling him to catalog books in his classroom led him to empty a small library he set up where students could choose to read something that interested them. Now those volumes are stored in a box he’s stashed in his closet for fear of getting in trouble.
“That kind of positive connection to reading is no longer there,” he said.
The individual challenges to books might be coming from a fairly narrow segment of the population, according to PEN and the American Library Association, which track requests to pull books. The library association said 40% of all requests challenged 100 or more books at a time.
Raegan Miller of Florida Freedom to Read, a group fighting the book restrictions, said she has talked about education issues with fellow parents of all political persuasions for years, and no one has ever complained about inappropriate material in their children’s schools. She contends the issue has been ginned up by a small group of conservative activists.
“Do you really think we are all just happily dropping our kids off at Marxist indoctrination and pornography?” Miller said. “You only hear this stuff at school board meetings.”
Moms for Liberty, which boasts 285 chapters, has a strong presence at school board meetings in the state and nationwide. It also has successfully backed several candidates for school board.
Justice, the group’s co-founder, notes the books are still available in public libraries and through booksellers. The question, she said, is whether it’s appropriate for taxpayer-funded schools to provide them to children.
Some books don’t belong in certain settings, she said: “A seminary library would have different books than a medical school library.”
It’s the local, elected officials, she added, who should determine what’s appropriate.
“That’s representative government,” Justice said.
Associated Press writers Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
“The theme of my speech is to remember the good moments, but also the hard moments too.”
Relationships and connections are the most important to Hunting Hill’s Valedictorian
Relationships and connections have played an integral role throughout Janie Tong’s high school career. She has recently been named this year’s Valedictorian for Hunting Hills High School.
“School itself is a lot with homework, assignments and exams, but the connections that you have with your friends and the relationships with your teachers it’s something that is really uplifting and gives you the balance that you need,” said Janie Tong, who has been named Valedictorian for Hunting Hill’s Class of 2023.
“I was really shocked when I heard the news of being named Valedictorian,” said Janie. “Throughout high school I have been working very hard, and it never really occurred to me that I could achieve it. Once it sunk in, I was really excited about it and proud because it was a recognition of all my hard work.”
Janie, who has been part of Red Deer Public Schools since Kindergarten, reflects on a few highlights during her high school career.
“Our Bike-A-Thon and Wakefest were so much fun,” she said. “It was fun to get to know my classmates, and have those experiences together and to make those connections.”
In Grade 10, Janie took a course called Social Studies 10-20-30, which meant she took all three years of social studies in one year. This type of dedication set her on the path for success.
“It was where I Iearned my work ethic because I was taking a Grade 12 course in Grade 10,” she said. “My teacher was great too, and made the class a lot of fun.”
As for what’s next, Janie will be heading to the University of Waterloo where she is enrolled in the Computer Science program.
“I’m really excited for a new adventure,” she said.
As for her upcoming graduation ceremonies, Janie said she is looking forward to making memories with friends, family and teachers. “I want to really appreciate the whole experience,” she said, adding she is also looking forward to addressing her fellow graduates.. The highs and lows of high school are what helped shape who we are today. High school was when we really found ourselves and started to answer the question we were asked when we were so young, which was ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’” said Janie. “It’s been a great experience.”
Darwin Roscoe, Principal at Hunting Hills High School, said Janie, who is known for her academic excellence and remarkable character, is deserving of this honour.
“Her numerous accolades in Advanced Placement and her relentless pursuit of knowledge have impacted her educational journey. Beyond her academic achievements, she has taken on leadership roles as a quiet leader, demonstrating exceptional organizational skills and the ability to unite others,” he said. “Her contributions to Hunting Hills High School have been recognized with the Power of Home, Power of Honour, and Power of Heart awards, acknowledging her compassion, empathy, and kindness. Her completion of the intercultural certificate shows her commitment to fostering cross-cultural understanding. Her genuine warmth sets her apart. She uplifts and supports her peers, embodying the qualities of a true mentor and friend.”
Graduation ceremonies for Hunting Hills will take place on May 26 at the Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre.
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