Aug 30, 2023 - Education

The battle over books continues in Cobb schools

Illustration of number two pencils inside a match box.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Cobb County's schools are again caught in the national political battle over which books kids can read.

Driving the news: Two weeks after firing a fifth-grade teacher who read a book about gender identity to her classroom, the district removed two additional books from library shelves after an outside, conservative activist organization, Libs of TikTok, asked if they were "appropriate" for students.

  • The group emailed the district on Aug. 19 and said it was gathering information about two "pornographic books your district currently has available to students" in libraries: "Flamer" by Mike Curato and Jesse Andrews' "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."
  • On Aug. 21, John Floresta, the district's chief strategy and accountability officer, responded and said, "We weren't aware of the sexually explicit content in these books until your email."
  • Libs of TikTok's involvement was first reported by Cobb County Courier.

Why it matters: Lesson plans and library catalogs have become a target for parents, politicians and activist groups seeking to have more control over what children can learn in the classroom.

  • This latest example brings national scrutiny to CCSD bookshelves. Libs of TikTok, known for posting frequent anti-LGBTQ+ content, has more than 2.4 million followers on X (formerly Twitter).

Catch up quick: Gov. Brian Kemp last year signed into law the Parents' Bill of Rights and legislation banning the teaching of "divisive concepts," as well as a bill that allows for the removal of obscene materials from school libraries.

What they're saying: A district spokesperson told Axios that the books were removed from 20 school libraries.

  • "Protecting our students from sexually explicit content isn't controversial, it's what our parents expect," Floresta told Axios in an emailed statement.

Of note: "Flamer," a graphic novel, tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who struggles with his sexuality while dealing with bullying at summer camp. "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is about a teenage boy who restarts a friendship with a girl who has been diagnosed with leukemia.

  • Both books are listed for readers 14 and older.

The other side: Jeff Hubbard, president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, told Axios that by responding to a challenge from an outside activist, the district violated its own policy, which says only parents or guardians of current students can ask the school to reconsider making a book available.

  • It also calls for a review and appeals process.
  • "Now what has occurred over the past week is that teachers have been clearing out their classroom libraries," Hubbard said.

Zoom out: State legislatures across the country have passed laws prohibiting schools from teaching critical race theory, sexual orientation or gender identity.

A report released last week by PEN American, a nonprofit organization that promotes free expression, indicates 392 proposals allowing parents and governments to change school lessons have been introduced in state legislatures since 2021, Axios' Russell Contreras reports.

  • 38 of those proposals passed into law in 19 states, including Georgia.
  • Around 45% have an anti-LGBTQ+ provision, including the forced outing of students.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Association of Educators, told Axios that the current culture wars are an "orchestrated effort by extreme, far-right politicians … to destroy the public school system."

  • "And then we add on top of that the passage of laws that are deliberately vague and broad that take away our students' freedom to learn and teachers' freedom to teach," she said, adding that the laws "demonstrate a lack of respect for teachers as professionals."

The bottom line: Removing books that include LGBTQ+ characters is "blatant discrimination" toward students who identify as such, as well as their families, Cobb resident Reid Jones told Axios.

  • Jones, who identifies as nonbinary and graduated from Kennesaw Mountain High School in 2016, said children who are as young as students in kindergarten are already aware of the concept of gender when they segregate themselves on the playground.
  • "It's really hard … seeing nonbinary kids in our school systems that are being targeted by this hate, even by parents and by some of the teachers," Jones said.
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