Georgia’s second-largest school district has announced the removal of two books from 20 school libraries, citing “highly inappropriate, sexually explicit content.” This decision comes shortly after a controversial 4-3 party-line vote by the Republican-majority school board to terminate a teacher for reading a book on gender identity to fifth-grade students.
Although book removals are not a new phenomenon, they have witnessed a surge since 2020, reflecting a backlash against the materials children read and discuss in public schools. Many conservatives aim to restrict access to books dealing with themes related to sexuality, gender, race, and religion, which they find objectionable. According to PEN America, an organization advocating for freedom of expression, there were 4,000 instances of book bans across the nation from July 2021 to December 2022.
The Cobb County school district, which serves 106,000 students, announced that 20 libraries contained either “Flamer” by Mike Curato or “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews, or both. “Flamer” is a graphic novel that explores the journey of a boy discovering his sexuality and his experiences at summer camp. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” involves some discussions about sex and contains profanity but primarily revolves around two high school boys befriending a girl who is terminally ill. Both of these books were among the most challenged in 2022, according to the American Library Association.
John Floresta, the district’s chief strategy and accountability officer, emphasized the district’s commitment to protecting students from sexually explicit content. He stated, “Our board and superintendent are clear — any book, video, or lesson which contains sexually explicit content is entirely unacceptable and has no place in our schools.”
Concerns have arisen regarding media specialists being questioned about the acquisition of these books and why they were added to the libraries. Such inquiries could potentially lead to disciplinary actions or terminations, although the district has not clarified its intentions in this regard.
Nan Brown, an advocacy coordinator for the Georgia Media Library Association, stressed the importance of students being able to find themselves and others in books. She questioned the removal of “Flamer,” noting that Georgia librarians had nominated it for a statewide award.
The fear now is that teachers might feel compelled to censor classroom libraries following the firing of Katie Rinderle, an elementary school teacher who faced repercussions for reading the picture book “My Shadow Is Purple.” She cited a vague board policy on teaching controversial issues as the source of her confusion.
The district has not provided details about who requested the removal of these books or whether more removals are planned. In an electronic message sent to parents, the district stated that it is making efforts to ensure its library materials align with Georgia standards, comply with the law, and contain age-appropriate content for students.
This recent string of book removals and the termination of Rinderle have had a negative impact on morale in Cobb County, despite the district offering the state’s highest teacher salaries.
Questions have arisen regarding whether Cobb County followed its own policies or adhered to a new state law outlining the procedure for handling book challenges.
In response to an open records request, Cobb County stated that it had no records of challenges filed under Georgia’s new law, which took effect on January 1. The district estimated a cost of $2,822 to provide records of books removed without challenges, whereas some other large Georgia school districts provided these records without charge.
Brown compared Cobb County’s actions to a similar decision in Forsyth County, another large suburban Atlanta district, where eight books were initially removed in early 2022 but were mostly reinstated after public pushback. The U.S. Department of Education subsequently issued a warning to Forsyth schools, suggesting they may have created a hostile environment, potentially violating federal laws against discrimination, and causing increased fears and possible harassment among students, based on discussions in board meetings.