CUMMING, Ga. – When Allison Strickland urged a suburban Atlanta school board in June to remove four books from school libraries, she was following a path cleared by Georgia’s Republican lawmakers.
But after the bitterly debated Georgia law took effect Jan. 1, The Associated Press found few book challengers are using it.
One key element restraining complaints: The law only allows parents of current students to challenge books.
Although not new, book challenges have surged since 2020, part of a backlash to what kids read and discuss in public schools. Conservatives want to stop children from reading books with themes on sexuality, gender, race and religion that they find objectionable. PEN America, a group promoting freedom of expression, counted 4,000 instances of books banned nationwide from July 2021 to December 2022.
But while fights are ongoing in Forsyth County, where Strickland was protesting, at least 15 other large Georgia districts surveyed by AP said they have received no demands to remove books under the law.
Georgia conservatives last year aimed to ease book challenges. But lawmakers knew a parents-only restriction would also limit them.
“We are not going to turn this bill into a weapon for every taxpayer to harass the school system,” said state Rep. James Burchett, a Republican from Waycross, during a 2022 hearing.
Still, some books are disappearing. Kasey Meehan, PEN America’s Freedom to Read director, said some schools are removing books even before parents ask. That’s happened in Forsyth County, where documents obtained by AP show a librarian “weeded” two books Strickland was protesting from another high school’s library, just before they were challenged there.
Those who object to books say Georgia’s law is being interpreted too narrowly and removing books should be easier. In most states anyone can challenge a book, not just parents, Meehan said. But some districts elsewhere also limit protests over books to parents.
The Georgia law may be preventing widespread challenges by a handful of conservative activists. Research has found complaints nationwide are largely driven by just a few people — who sometimes aren’t parents.
Forsyth County, a fast-growing suburb with 54,000 students, has been a hotbed for conservative agitation over public education.
A parent of two West Forsyth High School students, Strickland complained in March about sexually explicit books, attaching excerpts from BookLooks. The conservative website highlights passages that its writers consider objectionable. Strickland was working with the Mama Bears, a group recruiting book challengers.
Strickland targeted four novels: “Dime,” by E.R. Frank, in which a girl is lured into prostitution; “Tilt,” by Ellen Hopkins, in which a 17-year-old girl gets pregnant and a 16-year-old boy falls in love with an HIV-positive boy; “Perfect,” another Hopkins book about teens facing unrealistic expectations; and “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood, about a plague that kills most humans.
The principal examined the books, as legally required. In April, a Forsyth principal sided with a complaint, removing “The Nerdy and the Dirty” by B.T. Gottfred. But the West Forsyth principal concluded the books Strickland targeted should remain on shelves. She appealed to the school board.
“There is not one educational thing to be had from any of these books,” Strickland told board members, saying the books “run the gamut of child prostitution, forced rape, pedophilia, bestiality, sodomy, drug and alcohol abuse, all of very young minor children, often with adult partners.”
Others dissented, including T.J. McKinney, a departing teacher at a Forsyth middle school. She said students need to see their struggles reflected in books, and it’s pointless to shield older students from vulgarity or sex.
“The book is not introducing kids to sex. If you’re in high school, they’re having sex,” McKinney said. “They are not learning this from books.”
Forsyth Superintendent Jeff Bearden supported the principal’s recommendation to keep the books, as he did twice earlier. But the law requires the board to decide.
In April, board members backed administrators, retaining “Endlessly Ever After,” a choose-your-own-adventure fairy tale. But in May, the board overruled Bearden and required advance parental consent before students could read Gottfred’s “The Handsome Girl & Her Beautiful Boy.”
Faced with Strickland’s challenges in June, board members also required parental approval for the four books. The compromise left many unhappy.
“Members of the board, I ask you, are you really going to compromise on child pedophilia?” asked Mama Bears leader Cindy Martin before the vote. “If the answer is yes, then what will you compromise on next?”
“I see it as a loss,” McKinney said after the meeting. “The students still don’t have a right to choose their own books.”
Forsyth County was once a rural locale where white mobs terrorized the Black minority into fleeing in 1912. But suburban growth made it well-educated, affluent and diverse. Only 47% of Forsyth students were white and non-Hispanic last year.
But it’s also heavily Republican, and crowds attacked the system’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan in 2021. Agitation bled over into book protests. Officials pulled eight books from libraries in early 2022. They would later return all except “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” George M. Johnson’s memoir of growing up queer.
Opponents organized against the bans. High school student Shivi Mehta said she wants libraries to “stay whole.”
“I don’t want to have some books locked away,” Mehta said. “I don’t want to have books that I can’t read or can’t have access to because a group of politicians said I couldn’t.”
Critics continued reading explicit book excerpts at board meetings, urging removal. After telling a Mama Bears member to stop, the board banned her from speaking at meetings. The Mama Bears sued, and in November, a federal judge ruled the policy unconstitutionally restricted free speech. The district paid $107,000 in lawyer’s fees.
Others complained to the U.S. Department of Education that the district was excluding stories about people not white or straight. In a May warning, the department agreed, saying Forsyth schools may have created a hostile environment violating federal laws against race and sex discrimination, “leading to increased fears and possibly harassment” among students.
The district settled the complaint, agreeing to explain the book removal process, offer “supportive measures” and survey students about the issue.
But while federal government concerns may restrain administrators, the fight isn’t over.
“I think the momentum to ban or restrict books is not going away anytime soon,” Mehta said.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.