From School Board member resignations to administrator terminations, from Federal free speech lawsuits to schools pulling the Bible from library shelves, there is no shortage of stories about the challenges facing school districts that ban books based on allegedly explicit content. The U.S. Department of Education recently added to the fraught environment surrounding book bans in response to a complaint alleging that the removal of certain books led to violations of students’ rights under Title IX and Title VI. Specifically, several students spoke up at a school board meeting saying their school district removed books because of LGBTQIA content or authorship. Others claimed books were removed because they championed principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion or were written by authors or contained characters who are people of color. The students reported feeling targeted, marginalized, and unwelcome because of the book bans. Despite those reports, the school district did not address the concerns under its policies prohibiting harassment based on race, color, or national origin (Title VI policies) or sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity (Title IX policies).
Although OCR resolved the complaint before making a finding of whether a violation occurred, the type of resolution agreement used can only be considered when OCR’s investigation has identified concerns through its investigation. The agreement is therefore clear notice to schools that OCR expects them to treat allegations of harassment based on the removal of books from school libraries as they would any other allegation of misconduct based on a protected status. Unless and until a lawsuit—like the one filed by the Texas AG recently, challenging a similar OCR investigation in Texas—is successful, schools should brush up on their civil rights responsibilities to limit the risk of an OCR investigation in response to removals of library books. Let’s talk about this case a bit more and what those responsibilities are.