(The Hill) – The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Friday announced that a Georgia school district may have violated students’ civil rights by removing books that contained characters who were people of color or LGBTQ. 

The office said it concluded its investigation into Forsyth County School District after the school put restrictions on more than a dozen books in 2022 due to parents’ complaints. The department reviewed documents between the district and parents and meetings regarding the book removals, and it interviewed staff from the school.  

The OCR said the issue started at the beginning of last year after a parent group alleged sexually explicit books were on the library shelves and offered solutions such as removing books, shelving LGBTQ books in a separate part of the school library or making students have signed permission slips before checking out certain books in the library. 

Forsyth County Schools rejected all those proposals, saying they would target specific groups of people, and released a statement saying parents had to discuss with their own children books that conflict with their personal values. 

“Forsyth County Schools’ media centers provide resources that reflect all students within each school community. If you come across a book that does not match your family’s values and/or beliefs, and you would prefer that your child does not check that book out, please discuss it with your child,” the statement reads that was approved to appear on the school’s site. 

However, the school said it would review books that were said to be sexually explicit.

It found “nine books to be removed from all school libraries indefinitely, two books to be removed temporarily or restricted to high schools, and four books to be restricted to high schools,” according to the Education Department’s investigation. The actions were taken without communication with students. 

Meetings continued about removing more books, with some parents mentioning sexually explicit books while others focused on gender identity or sexual orientation. 

At one of the meetings, “[o]ne student stated that the book ban immediately made the environment more harsh for students; people like him who are not in the closet are watching their safe spaces disappear, and he is sick of being fearful at school,” the department’s review said. 

The school made a summer review committee and ended up returning seven of the books back to the shelves. 

While the department says it recognizes the steps the district took to assure the removals were not targeting a certain group and limited its bans to sexually explicit content, the communications the school had with students who were affected by the bans was inadequate, and the meetings still gave the appearance the actions were targeting certain individuals. 

“OCR has a concern the District received notice that its media center book screening process may have created a hostile environment for students, yet the District’s responsive steps related to the book screening process were not designed to, and were insufficient to, ameliorate any resultant racially and sexually hostile environment,” the department determined. 

The department and the school district came to an agreement on the matter. 

The school now must post a statement explaining the removal process that occurred, say the books were not removed based on sex, gender, race or sexual orientation of the characters and recognize the impact the issue could have had on some students. The district also has to give information on how to file discrimination complaints.

Additionally, the school is expected to survey students on the district’s environment and put together a group to assess the results and recommend changes. 

“I thank Forsyth County Schools for assessing and responding to the needs of the students who may have felt subjected to a hostile environment as a result of the library book screening process and for ensuring that, going forward, it will take appropriate action regarding acts of harassment that create a hostile environment based on sex, race, color or national origin,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon.

After the results of the investigation were released, Forsyth schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said the district “is committed to providing a safe, connected, and thriving community for all students and their families.”

“With the implementation of the OCR’s recommendations, we will further our mission to provide an unparalleled education for all to succeed,” she added. 

The report comes amid increased attention on the subject of school book bans, particularly in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) education overhauls have drawn national scrutiny.