Recently, a letter by the South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL), was circulated to school boards across the state expressing alarm at the recent surge in attempts to ban and censor school library and classroom materials. The four-page letter (.pdf) discussed SCASL’s policy positions, outlined a recent censorship issue in Forsyth County, Georgia, and assured school board members of the resources they can provide for support so that “our schools can learn from mistakes made in Georgia and avoid the unnecessary costs of legal issues.” As a local school board trustee, I do my best to remain even-keel and keep an open mind. But, as a parent, some things cannot be left unaddressed.
The subject of “book banning” perplexes me. I understand there are many varying perspectives of what constitutes “appropriate” material in a school setting. There is a real fear that lines can be blurred and that the First Amendment precludes removing books on the basis that the subject matter is offensive to some groups. Every time a parent expresses a concern about a certain book, the naysayers claim race, religion or ideology as a reason for the concern. To prove the idea of “banning books” as ridiculous, these critics rally around previously banned books like The Giving Tree, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Romeo and Juliet – and even the Bible. At a recent school board meeting in my district, a parent read the names of several popular characters and book titles during public participation; all the books were apparently previously banned elsewhere, the majority of which are popular titles in schools today. I don’t mention this speaker in a negative context; I appreciate and respect what the speaker was saying. Indeed, my own child is named after an author of a once controversial text mentioned above. And, for the record, my district hasn’t banned any books during my tenure; regardless of what some national talking heads may say.
However, when the subject of obscenity and sexually explicit material arises, the above-referenced arguments miss the mark and are typically taken completely out of context. With textbooks, library books, supplemental materials or anything else that can be presented in a school environment, it is imperative that each tool is capable of being tied to state standards and curriculum. Without meeting this requirement, the obscene material doesn’t belong in public schools – whether it’s the classroom or the library. Period.
After several parents expressed concerns about library books containing sexually explicit and obscene material, I attempted to address this issue back in February 2022 in a letter to Governor Henry McMaster and then-State Superintendent Molly Spearman. Parents read passages taken from books confirmed to be within District 5’s high school libraries that were so offensive our Superintendent asked the Board of Trustees to redact the audio before publishing the meeting video online. The District disclosed to parents that YouTube would not allow the audio to be published because it did not comply with their community guidelines for an educational entity in which “sexually explicit language or narratives” is prohibited. Understandably, many parents expressed their frustration over the contradictions between allowing obscene material in school libraries that are not allowed to be presented at school board meetings.
The letter was purely a request for guidance, clarity and advocacy to address ambiguities about what constitutes “obscenity” within the resources provided in our public schools. While U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that local school boards may not remove books from school libraries because they simply “dislike the ideas contained in those books,” the Court also recognized that school boards could remove books that were “pervasively vulgar” or lacked “educational suitability.” I made it clear – I am not in favor of “banning books” solely due to moral or political differences and other matters of opinion, because it is imperative that we encourage a student’s ability to develop critical thinking skills. Literacy proficiency is a crucial area of need in our public schools; our students need access to a variety of literary resources. Nevertheless, parents, including myself, strongly believe that materials containing obscenity require a different standard.
Ironically, this letter resulted in two things. First, the response received from the S.C. Department of Education (SCDOE) outlined an updated book review policy that had been disseminated to the local districts. Of note, the actual issue that was raised – asking for clarity regarding obscenity, was not directly addressed. Second, a fellow board member (unsuccessfully) tried to censure me for asking questions on board letterhead. Because … paper matters. I digress.
The policy response from the SCDOE was disheartening, although we ultimately still updated our own policy to reflect the model policy they provided. I have heard from numerous parents that the method of challenging a book is insincere and will only create issues for their child. Still, I do recognize the need for a process.
This brings us full circle … to the letter from SCASL.
SCASL outlines a recent situation in Forsyth County, Georgia, in which several complaints were made about books relating to sexually explicit content, many involving LGBTQ+ and people of color. The school district had a system in which multiple committees were involved in reviewing these books. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) intervened and announced findings against the school district. Of note, the findings “are a result of the hostile environment created during the process of the book challenges, not about the book challenges themselves.” The findings aren’t about the actual book and refuse to acknowledge whether the material is explicit. Now, any challenge on how a district handles that process is under greater scrutiny with respect to protected classes including students who are LGBTQ+ and students of color.
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Therefore, the new standard in which to determine a book challenge related to sexually explicit and obscene material is whether it creates a hostile environment for a specific group … even though it has absolutely zero correlation to state standards in education. Furthermore, SCASL rejoices in OCR’s findings, recommending that “districts and boards should probably place more consideration on the emotional wellbeing of students rather than on attempts to pacify parents.”
And, just like that, SCASL declared a war against parents.
Why are parents mad? Because the rules aren’t consistent. First, they are told explicit materials aren’t in our schools – and are accused of inaccurately transposing media stories from other states into our South Carolina school districts. Then, they are told they must comply with the rules on challenging a book pursuant to district policy – in which a committee typically reviews the challenge and determines whether to remove or keep the challenged material, which is then subject to appeal through the board of trustees.
Now, that entire process is exacerbated with new recommendations – including one which implies if a parent cannot suggest a replacement for a challenged book on a topic like sexually explicit LGBTQ+ books, it should be a red flag for a district about a potential civil rights violation. Or, if parents challenge multiple books at once that it could potentially create a hostile environment for students represented by these books.
Smoke and mirrors, people. Smoke and mirrors. A hostile environment is created by insinuating parents are discriminating against any class of people, simply because they expect the schools their children are required to attend by law are not providing school-endorsed opportunities for their minors to be exposed to obscenity and sexually explicit materials. This isn’t an attack on a certain class of individuals or students. It isn’t an issue about sexual preferences, identity, race, religion, etc. The issue is about state standards, curriculum, and exposing minors to materials containing obscenity and extreme sexually explicit depictions. Whether the book is Gender Queer or Fifty Shades of Gray, the material does not belong in a public-school environment. We have public libraries, and my personal argument does not extend past the schoolhouse doors.
The amount of time we are forced to waste in order to protect our children from obscenity in schools is ridiculous. Why are we forcing children to grow up so fast, before ensuring that they are equipped with the basic skills to know how to be grown-ups? We need the General Assembly, the State Superintendent of Education, local school boards, and parents to work together to address ambiguities and draft legislation that will withstand constitutional scrutiny to protect the well-being of all students. It’s apparent that the current federal administration, OCR, and certain associations are unwilling to do so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Elected in 2020, Rebecca Blackburn Hines is the current chair of the School District 5 of Lexington & Richland Counties Board of Trustees. Rebecca works in small business economic development and resides in Chapin, S.C. with her husband and their three young children, ages nine, seven and five months. The opinions expressed in this column are hers, and do not reflect the views of the school district.
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