Amid a growing wave of censorship in schools across the nation, one book has been formally challenged in the Hall County School District in the past five years, according to open records obtained by The Times.
That challenge came about a month before a school board meeting on April 25, 2022, that saw parents and students debate the merits of book censorship — one person’s “trash” was another person’s treasure. The book in question at the meeting was “Eleanor & Park,” which has not been banned or restricted, according to officials.
The debate was civil, but it raised questions about how to balance students’ First Amendment rights with the responsibility of schools to shield them from obscene material with little literary or educational value.
In March, the novel “Dear Martin” was challenged by the parent of a sixth grader at Chestatee Academy, who said the novel was vulgar and portrayed police in a dangerous way, among other complaints.
How a book challenge works in Hall County
- A complaint is made
- A five-person committee reviews the complaint. The committee at each school may include the media specialist, teachers and administrators.
- The committee reads the book in its entirety
- The complainant presents for 10 minutes
- The committee votes by secret ballot after the parent exits the room.
The novel remains on shelves at the school, but now only eighth graders are allowed to read it, and they are warned of its “mature content” before checking it out.
“This book contains extremely vulgar language that is not appropriate for a child in middle school or at any grade level within the public school system,” the parent wrote in the Reconsideration of Instructional Media Request Form, which asks parents to cite specific passages in the book and explain why they want it removed.
School officials declined to release the parent’s name to The Times. They said they redacted the parent’s name in an effort to protect the child, but they have declined repeated requests to cite the relevant statute in the Georgia Open Records Act, as required by law.
The parent wrote that “Dear Martin” has “sexual content and degrading language directed towardsthe female characters. The book as a whole is racially divisive and persuades the reader to believe that all police are racist murderers of black teenagers and that they do not like black people in general.”
Book challenges are decided by a five-person committee at each school that may include the media specialist, teachers and administrators. They review the complaint form, read the book in its entirety, allow the parent to present for 10 minutes and then vote by secret ballot after the parent exits the room.
“We have a very, very strong procedure in place,” said Kristi Crumpton, the school district’s lead media specialist. “It allows everyone to have a voice. But it also requires everyone to read the full material, instead of taking excerpts from a book or just listening to what somebody else has said about it.”
At the start of the school year, the parent signed a permission form allowing their child to read young adult novels, but later objected after the teacher sent a reminder asking parents “to check the book their child had selected to read and make sure they were comfortable with their child’s chosen book.”
Their child had chosen Dear Martin.
The parent said the author attempts to illustrate the consequences of racial inequality, but argued that “the book sends a clear anti-police message.”
“This book undermines public safety and gives our youth the impression that they cannot trust law enforcement, and depending on the child's level of maturity, home life, background, and mental stability, this book has the potential to encourage violence towards law enforcement from our youth,” they wrote.
The committee at Chestatee Academy met for one hour on March 28 and made a decision.
“While all members felt this novel was powerful in its ability to share diverse perspectives, through its character development and plot points, the committee feels the language of the novel makes “Dear Martin” most appropriate for 8th graders,” the committee concluded in its report. “The mature language and controversial content of racial relations and ‘coming of age’ decisions by the characters were deemed inappropriate to 6th and 7th graders with less maturity towards societal issues and life experiences.”
Looking at nearby school districts
Other counties across the state have faced similar issues.
In Forsyth County, 13 books, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, have been banned, and a mother was kicked out of a school board meeting in March for raging about the “filth” in libraries. In Cherokee County, a woman was ruled “out of order” for reading a brief excerpt from a book that seemed to describe a sex scene.
In Hall, Superintendent Will Schofield has emphasized the importance of free speech and argued that becoming the “book police” could set a “mighty dangerous precedent.”
The school system “sees the ‘banning’ of materials as an absolute last step,” as outlined in its six guiding principles on censorship, and supports a “school-level process” for resolving complaints about instructional materials. If parents object to a book, their children will be offered an alternative.
Officials said they are reaching out to neighboring districts to gauge “best practices.”
“The staff is starting to look at the process they used to pick books and how they are assigned, and we're looking at other systems to make sure we’re doing it the best way possible,” said Craig Herrington, chair of the school board. “When we talk about best practices, it would be how they select books for class assignments, that kind of thing, and making sure there's more options available for the parents.”
When asked if taking cues from Forsyth school officials could lead to stricter measures in Hall County, Herrington said, “What we're looking at is — Forsyth, we know they banned a few books and see how they chose them, why they chose them, would they choose them again. I don't see our system banning a list of books at this time, but it doesn't hurt to see how that's impacted their school system by doing that.”
Traci Costilow has two children in the school system. She is a media specialist at a school in Gwinnett and has heaped praise on Hall County’s media programs. Still, she said her daughter at Flowery Branch High was put in an uncomfortable situation when she didn’t want to read “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” because the 23-year-old main character dates a 17-year-old.
“There is always an alternate,” she said. “I just think that could be, I guess, communicated more to the student. … You could find two or three books that go with the topic that you're working on and offer students choices.”
PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, released a report in April about “the alarming spike in censorship of books in school districts across the country over the past nine months.” The report documented 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts in 26 states, with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students. Many of the books feature minority protagonists and deal with issues of race and gender identity.
“This is an unprecedented frenzy around book challenges and removing books from schools that is very evident to anybody who's been paying long-term attention to this,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America. “In response to that movement we need to stick to our policies, our processes and our principles more than ever.”
The report also noted that “most bans and restrictions have occurred without proper written forms, review committees, or transparency.”
Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 226, which requires school boards to adopt a policy for addressing complaints from parents who allege that material is “harmful to minors.”
“This is another bill that gives power and gives input to our parents in education,” said State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who co-sponsored the bill.
Hillel Levin, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in education law, said in an email that having a clear policy for addressing complaints is a good thing. But, he added, the law ultimately gives more power to a certain subset of parents — those pushing censorship.
“The bill sides in favor of those parents who want to ban more books against those who do not and against educators with different ideas about what is appropriate for children,” he said. “If you were a busy school administrator with all kinds of demands on your time and an interest in keeping your job, how would you choose to respond to the inevitable barrage of complaints from parents? If you were a busy school board member with an interest in reelection, how would you respond to these appeals? There's a reason that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Lisa Harris, a retired Hall County educator of more than 20 years and a self-described ultra-conservative, said she has sat on review committees that either banned or restricted books, but she fears that the current wave of censorship is contributing to group-think.
“My big concern is we’re not teaching kids to think for themselves,” she said. “If they don't have the opportunity to view alternate opinions, then they don't really have an understanding of why they believe what they do, and they’re easily persuaded through media, through peers, through social media.”
She worries that some efforts to ban books are “crossing First Amendment lines.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” she said. “We have to be careful about what we do because down the road, we may find that we've created a monster by trying to do the right thing.”
Thailand Griffith, an 11th grader at West Hall High, said people should reflect more deeply on the books that make them uncomfortable.
“For anybody who is made uncomfortable by the contents of a book that they have read I would ask them to consider where that discomfort comes from and maybe take a deeper look past the vulgarity of the book, and maybe do some reflection.”